It was early. Too early to be serving sausage rolls. There I was nevertheless, wishing people a nice day ad infinitum. I was tired, so tired that the whole world seemed kind of blurry, and I found myself lost in time. Minutes lasted hours, and hours lasted seconds. I was routinely impressed that I could serve any customers at all, and not at all surprised when I’d catch myself asking the same question three or four times. “Anything else?” I’d mumble, failing to be anything but animatronic.
“No thanks” would come the reply.
“Anything else?” I’d mumble again.
When I caught them grinning, confused, I knew what I had done. I was looping through my idle phrases, and whenever I was caught out I’d smile and let out a long, heavy sigh. I worried a customer would complain, would think the service staff had been replaced by gremlins like from the movie gremlins.
God I was tired.
Break, though. Time to have my break. I headed away from the customers, listening to the incessant buzz of questions and orders and laughing and groaning. So much noise. One sound cut through it all. The radio, and its three looping songs, had taken a break from repetitive auto-tune to give a little insight into the American election. Donald Trump, it said, was the new president.
The staff room was a whole lot quieter. I could just about hear myself think, behind that creaking wooden door. Even though the busy sounds from before, barely distinguishable from a headache, had been left firmly back with the customers, the sheer lazy ineffectiveness of my eyes had not. All I could do was sit, eyes closed, thinking. Just me and Trump. The brand new president Trump.
A few hours later, or maybe it was only a few minutes later, I found myself on the street. My shift was over, and home was imminent. I searched for my bike amongst the crowd of locks and chains. There it was, tucked just beneath a terrifyingly tall road bike, the sort that made me think giants just might exist. I approached, tripping over a bench and glaring around at anyone who dared notice. There was no one, only me and my bike and the sky.
Ah, that was why nobody was about. The sky.
Huge, icy teardrops plummeted towards me, and my hair grew heavy and slick. I fumbled for my coat, felt a buzzing in my pocket, dropped my bag into a fast forming puddle. Once my coat was firmly around my shoulders, a great waterproof cape, I reached for my phone. The buzzing was my dad, saying he could pick me up. I nodded my head, remembered that’s not how phones worked, and texted him back in the affirmative. And then I ran.
Back in the shop now, for some reason. I wasn’t serving or anything, in fact I was being served. “Hot chocolate please” I heard myself say. Oh, right. I thought it might be a good idea to get myself something warm, to protect me from the rain.
“Two hot chocolates then?” My co-worker looked confused, but only half as confused as me.
“No” I said. “Just the one.” I must have looped again. “Sorry” I sighed. She looked at me, scrunching up her nose and smiling a little.
“You’re tired” she said. I couldn’t help but agree.
I didn’t want to wait for my dad in the shop. It would have been awkward, watching my co-workers, well, work. Maybe it wouldn’t have been awkward, who knows. My brain didn’t, but my brain didn’t know anything. Trump, was all it knew. President Trump.
Down an alley, a grimy alleyway but one with a grey bricked roof of sorts, was my hiding spot. It was working, too. I could see the rain just beyond, coming down in thick, transparent sheets. People were running this way and that, charging into little nooks and crannies like it was a warzone. An old woman, hiding in the same spot as me, let out some vague collection of syllables. “Huh?” I said.
“Aren’t you cold?” she repeated, “You don’t even have a coat on.”
I didn’t even have a coat on. That was weird. She had a coat on. A red coat, all done up like Mary Poppins. A tiny Mary Poppins, mind you, for this little old lady had to crane her neck to meet my eyes. I wanted to ask her if she was magic, if she had appeared from nothing to give me advice for my quest like in the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, but I resisted this urge. “I am cold” I said instead. “It’s all cold. Just in general, I mean.”
“I was going to cycle home” she said jovially, gesturing to a bike. “But I think I’m going to wait for the rain to stop.”
Her bike was small, the sort that made me think dwarfs might exist. Well, I thought, they do, just without the beards and pick axes. “It must suck being a real human dwarf” I said, shaking my head in dismay. “The terms just been completely co-opted by bloody Tolkien.”
The woman stared at me, and I stared right back. Good god she was short.
A shape stumbled into our alleyway, then. It was a man, a head taller than me, broad of shoulder and with thick, matted hair. He leaned against a wall, staining his beige trench coat with dewy brick dust, and shook the paper bag in his hand violently. “Its alcohol” he said, before either of us asked. I could see that he was telling the truth; poking out just above the tip of the bag was the uncorked cap of a green glass bottle. He brought it up to his mouth and took a long, breathless swig. Once he had finished he took in a heavy breath, before setting his gaze back towards us.
The old woman, who I noticed had shuffled away a little, was fiddling with the handlebars to her bike. She kept watch of the man, even as I kept watch of her, and the wrinkles in her face had all bunched up around her eyes. “We were just talking about how cold it is” I said, trying to break the silence. He studied me with casual focus for a good few seconds, or maybe it was minutes, who knows. He took a seconds swig from his bottle. Finally, he spoke.
“I’man alcoholic” he said. “I’m useto the cold.”
“That must be tough” I frowned.
“Yeah. I like the stuff. Keepsme warm.”
His voice was slurred and his words stumbled over each other. He seemed to struggle getting his mouth to form the shapes he wanted it to, and every so often he’d just stop mid-sentence, as though trying to find the rest of it.
“I’m sorry” I said, not knowing what else to do. He turned away, and leant back against the wall. I glanced towards the old woman, who was still looking at the man intensely.
“Be careful” she said, a sound that radiated feeling. “Just. Be careful.”
The man was silent, and the heavy drum beat of the rain took over from our dialogue. The woman looked to her feet, and shuffled about uncomfortably. I felt a sudden pang of guilt, guilt that I didn’t know what the good thing to do might be. This man needed help, sure, but he hadn’t come to us for help, and even if he had, what help was there to give? I flinched at my own inner dialogue, surprised I could form a coherent thought. Maybe I was waking up, I realised. Maybe the cold or the waiting around or the sheer weirdness of the situation had kicked my mind out of its slumber.
“It’s like the whole worlds gone crazy” the man said suddenly, his words one long dribble. “It’s like. Allthis. It’s meantto be warm. It’s spose to be sunny. Where’sthe sun? Where the hell is it?”
“Global warming” the old woman added, pointedly. “It’s our fault. We’ve messed up the environment.”
“It’s crazy” I said, agreeing with the alcoholic. It was. Everything absolutely was. “Did you hear Trump got elected?”
“I know” sighed the woman. She knows I thought. She knows, and I know, and the sky knows, and it’s weeping.
“Did you hear that guy” the alcoholic mumbled, “who jumped off thebridge, and… And… It’s been freezing for hours, even if it’s summer, but got thisto keep me warm.” He took another swig from his bottle, and I saw the old woman look quickly away.
“That might not be the best idea” I said, watching vestiges of liquid run down his chin. “To drink all the time, and stuff.”
He looked at me, and instantly I shrivelled backwards. He didn’t seem angry, or sad, or anything other than drunk, really. Even so my brain started flashing with sudden jolts of chastisement. I had no right to say that. It was pointless, what was he supposed to do with the information? Just decide to put away the bottle and live a drink free life? As if he hadn’t tried. As if some coatless teenager hiding in an alleyway knew any better than him. It was a stupid thing to say. An idiotic thing.
“It’s hard” the woman said, her voice tiptoeing around the roar of the rain. “I imagine it’s hard, anyway. But there’s time. Things might be difficult but there’s still more time.”
The man held his bottle close to his chest. “It’s cold” he said, turning his back towards us. “Keeps me warm. Even when it’s all crazy. Whole worlds gone crazy, y’know. But it keeps me warm.”
He stepped out into the rain. The water rolled down his back in torrents, and the puddles around his feet ran in swift currents. He stood there, looking out into the road, for what could have been forever, or no time at all. The violent hiss of the rainfall began to fade down, and a tangible silence took its place. The sky grew clear as the man walked away, and suddenly, just like that, the sun began to peak around a cloud.
“Well” the old woman said, giving me a sad sort of smile, “I suppose I should start off home. It’s been nice talking to you.”
I nodded, and watched as she sped around a corner, fading into the distance like she had never even existed. A van rumbled past the alleyway, and I recognised it as my dad. I grabbed my bike, wheeled it ahead of me, and regarded the specks of pale blue that had just begun crawling out from above. “God I’m tired” I said to no one but myself. “I just need to sleep. I just need to sleep for a whole entire day.” And so I did.