Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Ball of Chalk By Steve Lucas

Steve Lucas's character, a screenwriter with daddy issues, is about to discover that he has a terrible taste in friends.

Definition:

1) Cockney rhyming slang: "Gone for a ball of chalk" means gone for a walk.

2) Military slang: "All went for a ball of chalk" means a situation deteriorated beyond repair, about as much use as a ball of chalk.



'Mercenaries!' I shouted. The people around me turned their heads and frowned. 'Cannon fodder!' The soldiers continued their march.

'What are you doing?' Jimmy nudged me and smirked.

'Murderers!' I yelled. A passing soldier reached his right arm across the barrier and tried to grab me. Jimmy pulled me backwards and we bumped into a fat lady who dropped her shopping bags.

'Come on then,' I said. The soldier beckoned me closer. I noticed that he only had one arm. Jimmy grabbed me by the collar and yanked me away.

'Some pacifist you are,' Jimmy laughed. 'That guy's a soldier, he'll have you.'

'Rubbish,' I said. 'He's only got one arm.'

'I think that's all he'll need to knock you out.'

'Bollocks.'

'Really? When's the last time you had a fight?'

'Erm... at school, I think.'

'Exactly. And did you win?'

'I can't remember,' I said. Jimmy laughed.

'In other words, no.' Jimmy raised his fists and we shadow-boxed our way down Colchester's high street. 'It's not like you to be kicking off. Are you sulking because they didn't keep you on?'

'That and everything else. I'm not sure what I'll do next. I've still got a few quid though.'

'That's good,' said Jimmy, licking his lips.

'Are you hungry?' I asked.

'I'm always hungry,' he grinned.

We entered the Setting Sun Café. Jimmy took out Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, tied his hair up and sat by the window. I went to the counter, ordered and paid. I nodded to the twins at the corner table. They nodded back as they chatted about the lack of eligible men in town.

'What about Jimmy?' I whispered. 'He's a handsome young writer.' They fell silent for moment, looked over at Jimmy and then burst into laughter.

'But he's penniless,' said Jenna.

'Unsuccessful,' said Jo.

'I hear he's about to get a pamphlet of poetry published,' I said with a wink. Jenna sniggered.

'So what? There's no money in poetry.'

'But there's poetry in money,' said Jo.

'What we need is a real man.'

'A man in uniform.'

'A man of action,' said Jenna, beginning to blush. They looked at each other and fell about shrieking.

'Enjoy your lunch ladies.' I smiled weakly and carried the tray of tea and toast over to Jimmy.

'Bloody hell those twins are hot,' I said.

'Yeah,' Jimmy replied and glanced up from his book. 'It's a shame they're such idiots.'

'I don't care if they are,' I said.

'I thought you were in love with the girl from the library?'

'What? Polly? No.' I felt my cheeks flush.

'She's cute.'

We slurped our tea and ate our toast while I stared at the twins and Jimmy read his book.

'I was in London last week and I bumped into our mate Dave,' Jimmy said. 'He thinks he might've sold our script.'

'You mean my script?'

'Oh yeah, I mean we're like brothers. What's yours is mine.'

'Thanks for reading it through.' A wave of nausea washed over me. 'My notes! Where are they?' I cupped both hands over my nose.

'Did you have them with you?'

'Yeah, I must've dropped them at the parade.'

'Oh man. I've got a copy anyway. And Dave has a copy. You don't need the notes anymore.'

'But there's other stuff in there too. I'll run back and look.'

'Watch out for your one armed friend...'

I ran back down the high street. The parade had finished and people were wandering around as usual. I checked the pavements, benches and rubbish bins. My notes were gone. I must've dropped them when I bumped into that lady. 'Bollocks,' I said to the sky. The dog-eared book of notes from the last six months: my characters, my plot lines, my dialogue, my script notes, my commentary - gone.



I took a long walk around town to clear my head. Then I thought I'd pop into the library and say hello to Polly. She was at the counter talking to a customer. Pretending to browse, I watched her through a gap in one of the bookshelves. Her shoulder length hair was held back at each side by a clip. Oval framed glasses perched halfway down her nose. I bit my lip at the slender shape of that lamb's wool jumper. 'Oh Polly,' I whispered.

As soon as she was alone I walked over to the Returns trolley and ran my finger across the top of the paperbacks. 'There're so many books in the world,' I said. 'I wish I could read them all.'

'I know what you mean,' she grinned, 'but the majority of books in here aren't worth bothering with.'

'I thought you loved books?'

'I do. I love the classics,' she sighed. 'Not the dumb stuff sitting on that trolley.' I withdrew my finger.

'Are you alright today, Polly?'

'Oh, take no notice of me. I'm fed up with this poxy town.' She leaned towards me and whispered, 'I'm sick of this library to tell you the truth. I want some adventure.' Her eyes brightened. 'I want to live life instead of reading about it.'

'I know what you mean,' I said, rolling my eyes. She laughed.

'Hey, there's a photography exhibition on at Church Street. I was planning to have a look on my lunch break. Do you want to come with me?' I had to put my hand on the trolley to stop myself falling over.

'Erm... alright then,' I said.

'Great. I'll be out of here at one o'clock. See you there at ten past.'



We shuffled around the partitions that housed large framed black and white photographs of World War One. The style was rather stark and bleak. The theme was anti-war yet pro-British, depicting the pointlessness, the pain, the loss, the suffering and the inhumanity of war. Soldiers in bandages smoking cigarettes, some kid holding his bloodied stump, nurses weeping, broken guns, heads in hands, a burnt out tank, charred bodies out of focus with flowers growing in the foreground, starving kids making necklaces out of spent bullet cartridges, ruined homes and that sort of thing. I nodded and hum hummed in a way that I hoped made me look thoughtful.

'What do you think?' she asked.

'They're very moving,' I said.

'It's such a waste. Do you think there'll always be war?'

'I don't think so.'

'Maybe it's human nature.'

'Maybe it's greed.'

'We're so lucky in this country. It's amazing that so many people gave their lives so that we could enjoy our freedom today.'

'Soldiers are just pawns in the game.'

'What do you mean?' She turned to face me.

'Like the Bob Dylan song.'

'Oh, I'll have to listen to it again.'

'Think of the war in Vietnam that's happening right now. Is it really about America trying to stop the spread of communism?'

'What else could it be about? Do you think it might lead to World War Three?'

'It could spread.' I pulled at my chin and looked down at my Cuban heel boots. 'Anyway, it amazes me how people can kill other people that they've never met, people that they might actually quite like if they met them under different circumstances.'

'It's tragic,' she said, curling her lips. We stood before a photograph of a British soldier carrying a crying child. 'I suppose they have to follow their training and do what's right. The British Army must be the best in the world.'

'They're trained killers.' I felt my jaw tighten. 'They fight for politicians, for business, for power, just the same as other countries.' We turned to face each other.

'Our soldiers fight against evil and tyranny.' Her face grew taut. 'If it wasn't for them we'd all be living under fascism now.'

'Soldiers are brainwashed. They're lambs to the slaughter.'

'My father was a soldier,' she said as her face turned red. 'He was a brave man and he fought for our country, for us all, for people like me and you.'

'I'm sure he did.'

'Don't patronise me,' she shouted. 'Do you mean that you wouldn't fight for our country?'

'I wouldn't.'

'Then you're a coward,' she said and walked straight to the exit. I tried to call after her but my throat seemed to lock itself.

'My dad was a soldier,' I whispered to the echo of her footsteps. An old man turned and frowned at me. I looked at the ceiling. The happiness that I felt just minutes ago melted like chocolate in my hand, like ice.



I eased myself into the bath, lay my head back and closed my eyes. I breathed the steam in through my nostrils and let out a long sigh. 'This is the life,' I said. The doorbell rang. 'Oh piss off,' I muttered. It rang again. 'For God's sake!' I climbed out, put my dressing gown on and went to answer the door.

'I've lost my keys,' said Jimmy as he staggered past me. 'Can I crash here tonight?'

'I was just going to have a bath and an early night.'

'Carry on mate, don't mind me.' I followed Jimmy to the kitchen where he got himself a beer and sat down at the table. 'Did you find your notes?'

'No.'

'Not to worry.' Jimmy started to smile and then looked away.

'I went to the war photography exhibition with Polly. I think we fell out.'

'You shared your views with her?' Jimmy asked and gulped at his beer.

'A little.' Jimmy exploded with laughter and spat beer all over me. 'Mate, you've blown it then.' He slapped his thigh.

'How was I to know?'

'Look.' Jimmy took out his Rimbaud book. 'You love this poet, don't you?' I nodded. 'Well, he packed in poetry before he was our age. He became a soldier, an adventurer. Then he became an arms trader.'

'A man who wrote like that would never do such a thing.'

'He was practically a boy when he wrote this,' said Jimmy, tapping the cover, 'and it is because he wrote like this that he abandoned poetry and joined the army.'

'Nonsense,' I said and tightened the belt of my dressing gown.

'Why do you hate the army so much anyway?'

'Because of my dad,' I sighed. 'He buggered off and left us.'

'What's that got to do with it?'

'I'm getting back in the bath,' I snapped.

'Please yourself,' said Jimmy as he put his feet up on my coffee table and gulped at the beer.



At sunrise, I opened my bedroom door to a foul stench of burning smoke. I rushed into the kitchen to find a frying pan on fire and plumes of black smoke rolling around on the ceiling. 'Jimmy!' I shouted and grabbed an oven glove to lift the pan off the heat. I coughed as I turned off the stove, threw the towel over the burning pan and opened the window. 'Jimmy!' I ran into the lounge where Jimmy was just sitting up on the sofa, bleary-eyed, a pile of empty beer cans at his feet. 'Let's go!' I grabbed his hands, pulled him out of the room and pushed him out of the front door. 'Call for help, Jimmy!' I knocked on all the neighbours' doors shouting, 'Call the fire brigade!' I was coughing so much I could hardly make myself heard. Then I sat down on the kerb and waited for the fire engine to arrive.

'Thanks a lot Jimmy,' I said to the gutter. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.



I made my way into the library. Polly was busy arranging the day's newspapers. 'I just wanted to apologise about yesterday,' I said.

'What about it?' She didn't look at me.

'You know, at the exhibition.' I tugged at the buttons on my jacket. 'I didn't know about your dad and...'

'Oh, don't worry about it.' She shrugged her shoulders. 'Anyway, why do you look so miserable? I thought you'd be celebrating.'

'Celebrating?'

'Yes. Getting the script sold. I know how hard you worked on it.'

'How do you know about the script?'

'Oh, was it supposed to be a secret? Jimmy told me yesterday, just before closing time. He said you were going to get drunk and celebrate and then today you were going to head to London. It sounds like everything is moving pretty fast. I wish I was going to the big smoke.'

'That's what Jimmy said?'

'Yes. In fact, he said he'd take me to lunch in The George before he goes.' Her smile started to fade. 'What's the matter?'

I went outside, found a phone box and rang Jimmy's house. The phone rang and rang. After a minute I hung up. Then I rang Dave's office in London.

'Did you sell Riches Have Wings?' I asked.

'I sure did. You must be proud of Jimmy.'

'Don't I need to sign anything?'

'You? No, why would you?'

'As the author.'

'There's only Jimmy's name on it. He sorted the copyright with the lawyer.'

'What?'

'I said Jimmy -'

'I heard what you said,' I snapped. 'I wrote it.'

'Well, it sounds like you might need to speak to him. Or you'll need to take him to court. Have you got any evidence that you worked on the script with him?'

'Yes, I've got stacks of...' and then I remembered. 'Dave, I'll call you back.' My secret garden had been raked over. In that moment, a pale white fist ripped up my flowers and threw them into the sea.



I closed my front door behind me and began to inspect the damage. The kitchen would need replacing. The whole flat stank of smoke. It was worse than I first thought. The sofa, the curtains, my clothes, they'd all have to go. I fell to my knees and began to cry. A vacuum filled me, a sobbing, grieving hole. Jimmy's name kept repeating in my head. I pulled myself together. I opened the wardrobe and took out my memory box. The photographs were unharmed. I took out the only photo of both my parents with me. My dad looked pigeon-chested in his uniform while my mum held me in her arms. Less than a year later he would abandon us. I fingered the edges of his two medals. I took out his knife and withdrew it from the sheath. The blade was still sharp. I slid the knife back and tucked it inside my jacket. I closed the box and put it safely back in the wardrobe. Then I looked at the walls one last time, picked up my trilby and left.



I took a seat in the far corner of The George and waited. I adjusted my chair so that I was partially concealed by the leaves of a cheese plant. I ordered a bottle of red and angled the hat's brim so that it was closer to my nose. The knife nudged against my ribs with every breath. Its presence seemed to give some strength. 'Are you ready to order your food?' asked the waitress.

'Not yet. I'm waiting for someone.' I had no appetite so I sipped at the wine and pretended to read a newspaper. Every time the door opened I peered over through the gap between the paper and the brim of my hat. The twins came in wearing matching polka dot dresses and sat in the middle of the restaurant. I drained my glass and poured another. I watched the twins as they chatted and giggled and played with their hair. I waited. The door opened and a couple came in. It wasn't Jimmy or Polly. I drank more wine and beckoned the waitress. 'There was a reservation for Jimmy for two people for lunch?' I asked her.

'Just a moment, I'll check for you.' She came back and said, 'Jimmy booked a table for twelve thirty but he cancelled it. Didn't he tell you? He's gone to London.' She studied my face. 'Are you ready to order?'

'I'm afraid not.' I finished the wine, put some money on the table and left, kicking the door closed behind me. Another bauble hung on the tree of fury.



I paced every aisle of the library. 'Where's Polly?' I asked the kid on work experience.

'She's gone,' he said.

'Gone? Gone where?'

'London,' he said with eyes wide.

'London? But why?'

'She said she's sick of this town and she's going on an adventure.'

'You mean she just walked out?'

'Yes. She left with a man that she had been talking to.'

'A man? What man?'

'I've seen him in here before. He's got long hair, looks like a poet. Oh, and he left this behind.' He handed me a book. It was Rimbaud's A Season in Hell.' There was Rimbaud's portrait on the cover staring back at me. I pictured Jimmy as a raven waiting for a newborn lamb's eye to open.



By the time I reached the train station I was out of breath. My body was on fire. There were no trains at either platform. 'Where's the London train?'

'It went ten minutes ago,' said the ticket man. 'The next one will be leaving at...' I was already walking away. I walked in the shadow of some huge, contagious black bat, a thirsty creature which gulped at my life force like a child with a milkshake. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the bat to fly away. My knuckles pressed into my temples until lights began to dance behind my eyes. I staggered up the high street with an impending sense of doom, like a man with a five second memory. Mothers moved their children out of my path as I kicked at the litter on the pavement and muttered curses at the faces around me. I turned a corner and bumped into the fat lady again who shrieked and dropped her handbag.

Then I saw the twins standing outside the army recruitment office. They were tapping on the window, waving and giggling at the soldier behind the front desk. They saw me approaching and Jo nudged Jenna and whispered something. 'Good afternoon, ladies,' I said as I marched through the door. Rage swam through me like pigs' intestines on a slaughterhouse floor.

'Good afternoon,' they said in unison. A long needle of white noise lanced my ears for bad blood.

'I'm here to enlist,' I said to the soldier behind the desk. I turned around to see the twins' faces pressed against the glass, hooked, their big red mouths hanging open like catfish.

'Good,' said the soldier and he looked up from his paperwork. I noticed that he was missing his left arm. 'Don't I know you from somewhere?' The soldier stood up and walked around the desk. His eyes never left mine. I took a step backwards and glanced at the twins. They were staring through the window with their slender bodies pushed up against the glass.

'Maybe I've got one of those faces,' I said and turned my left shoulder towards him.

'It's you,' he said. His eyes narrowed, his shoulders rolled back. 'So,' he smiled, 'it's the tough guy from the parade.' Adrenaline surged through me, cutting clean through the bottle of red wine. I heard the twins tap on the window and the soldier looked in their direction. My right hand slipped inside my jacket and touched the carved handle of the knife. The left side of his muscular torso was momentarily exposed. I breathed the smell of the army in through my nose. The handle of my father's knife felt cold and ugly against the clamminess of my palm as the whole world and all of its battles seemed to plunge into a cathedral silence.

6 comments:

  1. A deft exploration of friendship, betrayal, alienation and terminal desperation.A good read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. an interesting read with several good twists, the value of friendship? everything has its price!

    Mike McC

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  3. An engaging journey along a twisted path, where well-drawn images keep popping up. Well done!

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  4. I really liked the dialogue and the back and forth about war. I especially like reading stories on this site because I'm American and I find it refreshing to read about England. This story engaged me. Thank you.
    DC Diamondopolous

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  5. Well, I guess Jimmy had gone for a ball of chalk; subsequently the MC’s life all went for a ball of chalk.
    A great take on betrayal between ‘friends,’ and multi-faceted betrayal at that. I was concerned with the MC’s fate after his falling out with Polly, her disappearance with Jimmy to London in the wake of Jimmy’s plagiarism was salt in the wounds!

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  6. Good read. Vietnam was such a waste of life. Good back and forth about war and what soldiers fight for.

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