By Fred Johnson
What a day:
went as usual to Mr Kebab Express. Ordered pizza—twelve-inch special, no olives, can of Irn Bru. Was waiting around like normal, sat on the old wooden bench and whatnot, twiddling the proverbial, when Sohrab calls my name. Nothing strange yet, I know, but wait, greedy fucker, wait—
Sohrab—or Andy, he insists—gives me two pizzas. Doesn’t even blink.
Well, I don’t know what to think. I’d only ordered, paid, for one. Was it a test? No time to umm and aah about it. Sohrab could notice at any moment.
So I do it. Turn as if everything’s normal—imagine, normal!—and, all casual like, stroll out of there, heart beating like a fucking drum.
Dark by then, of course. Rain, probably, but not so as you’d notice. Made a beeline up the hill, half-expecting Sohrab or one of the other lads to run out after me. Passed a policeman on the way, lounging by the post office—looked up at me as if he knew, knew something wasn’t quite right, but I just ignored him, didn’t I? Done nothing wrong—he knew it, I knew it. Eyes front, Smithy, eyes front.
Don’t really want to talk about the rest of the night.
A powerful stimulant that’s often compared to drugs like cocaine and ecstasy
Also called: 4-MMC, Bounce, Bubble, Charge, Drone, M-CAT, M-Smack, MC, Meow Meow, Meph, Miow, White Magic
That’s Google for you. White Magic. Whose mum called it that? Whose fucking grandma?
Klaus: ‘Oooh, alwight mate, can I get some white magic, pwease?’—pause, for effect I suppose—‘Fuck off!’
Did that sudden laugh of his, like a bomb dropping.
He was right, of course. Might have been a messy prick but he knew his way around. That was Klaus all over: messy but lucid. Knew who could be counted on, when to disappear, who got generous after a few pints, who got morose. Inexplicable German name, Bristol accent. In Berrynarbor of all places. Mental.
Berrynarbor, if you’ve not had the pleasure, is a quaint little stain on the North Devon coast—your reward if you make it unscathed and unmolested through Combe Martin. Nice sandy beach that fills with London wankers in the summer, dramatic shoreline of cliff and slate and heath, little thatched houses and pubs with names like ‘The Muddy Goose’ and ‘The Black Boy Inn’. Crown jewel, though, is the flowerpot men scattered all over the place. Right: regular flowerpots, you know, clay and terra cotta boys, only slotted together like Russian dolls. Now, though, you do it in the shape of people: arms, legs, long droopy torsos, the whole shebang. Big googly eyes. More often than not, straw hats. More of them than people nowadays.
What’s weird is that everyone makes them, not just bored grannies and parish priests trying to keep their eyes off the choirboys—fucking everyone.
Perverse if you ask me.
Klaus, though, he likes them. Has little talks with them. We’ll come out the pub at closing and he’ll stroll up all how-do-you-do and try to stuff a fag in one of their drawn-on mouths and start asking about the weather and the wife and whether they get bored sitting around like that. Thought it was pretty funny at first but by repetition number four I must confess the charm was wearing thin. Only got angry though when he smeared a puff of drone over one of their faces—‘Here you go, mate, take the edge off’—a thick off-white smudge right beneath one dead eye. Gave me the shakes something awful.
That was ages ago though, before Pizza Day even. Don’t really get angry anymore.
Berrynarbor has won many awards including Best Kept Village and Britain in Bloom. The community shop, which opened in 2008, won the Countryside Alliance Award for the best village shop/post office in the Southwest of England. Every year the village hosts a show which involves some of the locals and primary school children. In July, the school hosts a fête in the manor hall and park.
A thing I’ve caught myself doing a lot lately: searching Wikipedia. That’s from the Berrynarbor page, obviously, but I look at other stuff too. For instance, the Olde Globe’s got a page, somehow, and Watermouth Castle, and Ilfracombe further out. Old, sick places that shouldn’t matter to anyone, but some sad sap’s gone and got himself online and written out the heres and theres so that nobodies like me can spend long Sunday comedowns reading about something I’m apparently a part of.
Weird to think about.
Klaus, I’m sorry to say, does not have a Wikipedia page. Neither do I. While, yes, these facts represent in my opinion small injustices, I must concede that there’d not be a whole lot to write about. Klaus, for one, doesn’t even have a surname, at least not one he’s told me. He also doesn’t do much besides sniff out drone (at which, it must be said, he’s something of a virtuoso) and play Shadow of the Colossus on PS2 in his basement flat, which I can only assume he somehow owns because he’d never be able to make the rent. Besides that, he’s with me at the pub or else we’re scavving a ride to Ilfracombe and baiting the meatheads at ‘Spoons or that last scummy club they’ve got, Toko or Fever or something.
Sometimes Mate comes with. He’s here now, in fact, at Klaus’s, where we’re drinking Stella and watching Klaus play Shadow of the Colossus.
‘Mate,’ says Mate.
Klaus is off on his own, has that glazed look he gets when he’s riding around on his video game horse chasing video game giants in that big, empty video game world. This means that Mate’s my responsibility.
I nod and say something noncommittal.
This seems to satisfy him. ‘Mate,’ he says.
Mate goes for a fag and I get another beer.
In the game, Klaus’s character, an adolescent boy, is riding his horse across a gigantic ruined bridge that’s like loads of lower-case Rs slotted together—like, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Beneath, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
Not for me, thanks. That’s what I tell him.
I hate Shadow of the Colossus. Either the horse-riding boy’s too good at keeping secrets or he’s as empty as the sandy world he flops around in, and you can’t put two empty things together like that. Country’s got enough fucking flowerpot men.
It’s like the opposite of the pub. Pub’s good because it’s loud and, on Fridays, it’s full. All well and good to put quiet things in loud places—it’s the right thing to do, in fact. It’s good.
Same goes for empty things.
Think about it: the fishing boats out there, bobbing just off the coast. The black slate below.
Mate’s back. ‘Mate,’ he says to Klaus.
It takes Klaus a minute. Finally he looks up and I see he’s got that pained look about him, like Grannie yanked off her morphine.
‘Mate?’ Mate says.
‘Yeah, all right,’ Klaus says.
Mate and I look at one another, grinning. We know what that means.
Unfortunately, Mate, having thrown himself after a celebration Stella, trips over the cable connecting Klaus’s controller to the PlayStation. It’s yanked away and Klaus yells, angry like, but also like someone who, seeing a pram teeter at the top of a staircase, out of fear cries out—but down it goes regardless, the PlayStation I mean, off the TV cabinet and, ouch, down to the damp floorboards.
The screen flickers, black, white, one of those weird lines and a few dots that remind me of dial-up internet, and then there’s a pop and it goes blue. I quite like it, actually.
‘Mate…’ Mate says.
But that’s not going to cut it—I know that already.
Klaus, though, just laughs. ‘You tit,’ he says, and gives Mate a little slap on the head. Mate, for his part, looks like he’s just burst out of his car to find that his human roadkill has hopped up and told him no hard feelings.
And for some reason I can’t quite fathom, this really kills my buzz.
But no time for all that. Klaus hath spoken and Mate’s already waving his arms around as if they’re wings, like he thinks he can fly to the pub, or further still, maybe, to wherever it is Mate would fly to if he had the means and wherewithal.
Probably just the pub.
It’s cold out. October, meaning the hills are mud and the cows barely bother standing up. Everything’s dull green except the cliffs, which are the glossy black of posh worktops or Dad’s old records, and the flowerpot men, who’re all vermillion but for those white and watching eyes. And then of course there’re the sea and sky, which are the grey of smoke and of each other.
Speaking of smoke, Mate’s off his head, jabbing his fag emphatically with every jubilant ‘Mate’. He did a line off of Klaus’s TV stand before we left and now he’s gurning his tits off and winking at everyone we pass. It helps a bit—Mate’s a big lad but shit always hits him like he’s fourteen again, necking that first two-litre Lambrini in the Tesco carpark. I’m half-worried they’ll take one look at him at the Globe and kick us right out but, as ever, the perpetually frightened-looking nineteen-year-old behind the bar flicks his rubbish fringe out his eyes and gets straight to it: three pints, three sambucas. We’ve barely taken a sip when Mate, rubbing his hands together and twitching, disappears, following some nameless regular out to the smoking area. Man’s a fucking chimney.
Klaus and I don’t even bother clinking glasses. Down goes the sambuca and then it’s straight to the loo. We cram into the one haggard cubicle and Klaus measures a couple lines out on the porcelain chamber.
‘Dinnah is sahved, sah,’ he says in his best RP, bowing and shuffling back into the corner.
This is always my least favourite part. Taking a big old sniff in a room that stinks of stale piss doesn’t do wonders for one’s already battered sense of self-respect, so I rush through it: knee on the toilet, back hunched, a rolled-up fiver up my nose, and—fuck. Cold, sharp, somehow still harsh after a hundred weekends, like snorting sand or broken glass.
It is good though.
Do the dance of the trade—a kind of full-body shiver starting at the feet—and grin at Klaus, who’s nodding his head approvingly, looking weirdly like my old violin teacher, Mr Phillips, who had a droopy Fu Manchu and murky eyes—
Just then, someone comes in.
Not missing a beat, Klaus winks at me and falls back on the toilet. He pulls me onto his lap and I kick my feet up against the walls, smooth as clockwork. Good opportunity for some light reading, and indeed the good gents of North Devon doth provide: yeah, the huge and intricately detailed dick lovingly drawn in black marker is pretty impressive, but it’s the newest entry to the back-and-forth that snags me. The full piece, stretching back to the druids, probably, runs as follows:
We buy things we dont need with money we dont have to impress people we dont like
We vandalise things that arent ours with quotes we didnt write to impress people taking shits
Gets me every time. But it goes on:
arts degree wanker got his cert from here
A long arrow points from this to the loo roll dispenser. But a-ha, a riposte:
tory cunt got his opinions from here
Another long arrow points from this to the toilet bowl.
Then, finally, the newest, written neatly under Tyler 2010+!!!!
whats tory and wanker mean??????
I elbow Klaus in the ribs and nod towards the wall, incredulous like, but he just frowns like he doesn’t get it. Just for me, I suppose.
The footsteps pause and we listen to the unzip, grunt, the hiss and splash, then the re-zip, sniff, rush of tap, sad scrape of hands against jeans. The door swings.
I stand up and Klaus swivels back to the chamber. He dips his head and, in one sharp snort, sweeps left to right. Then he’s up, like always, a butterfly from its chrysalis. I get the feeling sometimes that the Klaus left here with me is just a shadow cast from the one gone somewhere up there.
We hurry back out and, as the drug begins to stir in my brain, I catch the eye of the kid behind the bar. Whats tory and wanker mean?????
Bet it was him. Fucking zoomers.
Klaus is talking. Has been for a while, I think.
Closing time or there abouts and we’re stood out front with the other castaways, smoking and squinting past the lampposts’ greenish cones like it’s the Somme or something, like we’re smoking our last cigarettes and trying not to cry or maybe at that point you don’t even feel like crying but instead like you’re mashing a Rubik’s Cube, just swivelling through possibilities and decisions on the off chance that something lines up.
Klaus is still talking. He’s nodding, looks off somehow. I try to tune in but it’s like we’re on different frequencies and all I get is his mouth opening and closing like a fucking guppy. He’s shaking his head now and looking up at me and it seems then like he wants something—but he’s already had my last fag, cheeky bastard, and we gummed the last of the drone hours ago. Can still feel it, in fact, like static in the back of my head.
So I look past him, past the pale and fishlike regulars, past Mate (who’s necking a middle-aged blonde indistinguishable from all the other middle-aged blondes he’s necked), to the furthest boundary before the dark. There, just visible on the whitewashed wall where the carpark meets Castle Lane, is a flowerpot man. He’s staring at me.
I stare back. Someone’s made him blue dungarees and given him a little wicker basket as if he’s about to trot off for a lovely picnic with the other flowerpot men, where they’ll drape themselves over tree trunks and benches and talk about how much they miss soil and tulips. This one’s head is cracking—a dark fissure runs from dead grin to white eye.
‘—other way out. And you’re—’
He’s a big one, too: from head to foot probably about seven feet. Which gets me thinking about the wandering giants in Klaus’s stupid video game, the big rocky monsters your boy has to ride up alongside, jump on, climb up, crest, and finally stab to death so that he can save his sister or girlfriend or whoever. I imagine Klaus shimmying up a gigantic flowerpot man with a little sword on his back, not many footholds, mind, but he makes it anyway (White Magic!) to the the top of the colossal head, and he looks around that orange plateau for a weak spot to facilitate the all-important stabbing-to-death part but of course there’s only that little drainage hole, so he hops in and with that I never see him again.
Up the hill, past the policeman, moon a big white eye seeing my good fortune so that I might at last see it. The two pizzas are hot, warming my arms even through the fleece. Can hear the moans of the sea on the other side of the white terraces and very distantly the moans of lonely cars vanishing on the A399 twenty thousand leagues away. Briefly consider heading down to the off-white smudge of beach but figure the steps’ll be slick and lethal by now. Everywhere else is foggy, so home it is.
Village’s almost dead at this hour. No birds except a far owl hooting its head off. Buzzing halogens in Victorian lampposts feeling now like chalk on Mrs Benson’s blackboard in year eight English, their whine knuckling up a headache. Still, though: two pizzas!
Only, outside a house ahead a body is slumped against the wall, head back, eyes to the sky. I mistake it first for a flowerpot man but quickly see it’s an actual man, the fleshy sort, old in the way that all the homeless are old, stubbled and drawn and thick with corduroy and polyester. He looks down and his white eyes move to contain me and my two pizzas, which grow suddenly damp and heavy.
How easy it would be to do something here. It’d cost me nothing; just the passing on of good luck.
Trouble is, you do one thing and all at once you find yourself doing other things—and, worse, feeling good about those things, like you’re making progress and doing better. Next thing you know, you wake up and you’re one of those pathetic saps who thinks that doing things does anything. That distant giants can actually be slain.
So I hurry on past, pizzas cradled like I was once cradled, all those years ago. When I get home, I realise I’ve forgotten my key. I bash a fist against the door.
When it opens, the silhouette doesn’t recognise me.
Fred Johnson is a British writer and photographer currently completing an MFA at Iowa State University in the USA, where he was a 2021-2022 Pearl Hogrefe Fellow. He’s had poetry published in Tilde, Iota, The Incubator, Zetetic Record, Spark, and others, and photography published by Paddler Press and in Reed Magazine. His cats are named Myshkin and Bean.