A Tiding – Part VI
by Timothy J Jarvis
Part VI of ‘A Tiding’. The first part can be found here.
Soundtrack: High Aura’d ‘La Chasse-galerie’
Colin presents his collection – a one-eyed fox – a pyre – a mistake – Natalie’s parting words – seven oblations – the old man’s offer – Colin’s reward
Pulling free of Colin’s grip, Mark stepped away from the bed. Colin fell to his knees, upended his carrier, tipping out its contents, then held each one up in turn, muttering the while. Mark crossed over to the window. In the narrow alley below, he could see, by moonlight, a one-eyed fox scrabbling in slop spilling from an overturned bin; its sole eye gleamed. When Colin finished, the old man moaned. Seeming to take this as a sign of approval, Colin began chuckling and nodding. The old man indicated the fireplace with a trembling hand. Nodding comprehension, Colin gathered up his things, took them over to the grate, and threw them in. He got down on his haunches and heaped them, crumpling the playing cards and the LP cover. He tore the magazine page into strips, which he twisted into spills.
Mark looked over at him. ‘That won’t catch.’
Colin smiled, took a lighter from his pocket, lit the spills. He poked them here and there into the pile. In moments it was aflame. Turning to Mark, Colin bowed low. ‘Ta da!’
He crossed back over to the bed. The old man said something to him that Mark didn’t catch. Colin beckoned Mark over. Mark shook his head. ‘Look, I’m going to leave. How do I find my way back to the High Road?’
‘What?’ Colin said.
‘It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here.’
‘But he’s agreed to help you.’
‘I’ve problems enough already.’
Mark started to walk out, but the old man, raising himself up on his bony elbows, fixed Mark with a glare, said, in a high nasal voice, ‘You really are a self-pitying shit.’
Mark started, recognising Natalie’s parting words to him; even the intonation was uncannily reminiscent. He stood pale and feeble, hanging onto the doorjamb, staring at the old man over his shoulder.
‘Come here, listen to what he has to say,’ Colin said, kindly.
Mark staggered over to the bed.
Reclining once more, the old man began to speak. ‘I so love shiny things. All kinds of things that glitter, or glisten. And brightly coloured things, gaudy stuff.’
‘Handkerchief,’ he demanded, looking up at Colin.
Colin took one from his pocket and offered it. Reaching out a liver-spotted claw, the old man snatched it, took several wheezing breaths, hawked, and, holding it to his mouth, spat. When he took it from his lips, a dark clot clung to the cloth. After peering at this for some time, with the air of a crone scrying in a crystal ball, he swaddled it up, threw the balled handkerchief from him.
Then he turned his head, gazed upon Mark once more.
‘As you can see, I’m old and feeble now. It wasn’t always so. Once I walked abroad and men quailed at my approach.’
He dug in his nose with a filthy fingernail. ‘But now I can’t leave here, so I’m always on the lookout for people to act as my proxy.’
‘To go out on his behalf,’ Colin answered. ‘Gather the offerings the city makes him.’
‘That’s right,’ the old man said. ‘You’ll be directed to these oblations. There’ll be seven, there’s always seven. All you need do is collect them and bring them to me, and I’ll gift you a peck of good fortune.’
He drubbed the mattress with his heels, raising a haze of dust, clawed the air, shrieked, ‘Shiny, shiny, shiny and lurid things!’
At first Mark cringed back, but then he sniggered, turned to Colin and tapped his temple. Colin frowned, looked away, hissed, ‘Be respectful.’
‘Well, it’s up to you,’ the old man said.
He shifted slightly in bed, grimaced, and farted. It stank of rot.
‘Now leave,’ he went on. ‘Once you’ve collected all the offerings return. You won’t find me here in the daytime. Come after seven in the evening. And no later than ten thirty. At ten thirty, I sleep.’
Turning his head, the old man looked at Colin.
‘Colin, you have done well by me and will be rewarded.’
Colin gave a crow of triumph and broke into a gawky jig.
‘Cease that,’ the old man said, ‘or I might think to withdraw my favour.’
Colin stopped cavorting straight away, cast his eyes down, and began to scratch, frantically, the side of his head, above his left ear. A habit, Mark realised; there was a bald patch fretted there.
The old man slouched back onto the mattress, broke wind again. Mark tugged Colin’s sleeve.
‘I think we should leave now.’
Colin nodded. ‘He’ll need to sleep,’ he murmured. ‘We need him to sleep, the whole city needs him to sleep, for his dreams sustain the place.’
They left the room, descended the stairs, went outside, and began returning, the way they had come, to the High Road. When they emerged into the open again, after passing under the railway arch, Colin stopped, tilted back his head, and stared at the sky. At Mark’s feet was a crushed lager can in a pool of sticky beer. By it a bloated slug squirmed feebly.
‘They’ve never seemed so dazzling!’ Colin exclaimed.
Mark looked up, saw the sky was overcast. He strode on ahead, and, after a moment, Colin noticed and jogged to draw close once more.
‘So…’ he said, a little breathless.
‘Will you collect for him?’
‘He’s a senile old man.’
Scowling, Colin kicked at a pile of leaves. Then, catching sight of something, he bent down, hollered with glee. ‘A twenty pound note. Things are looking up already.’
Mark gave a low whistle. ‘Twenty pounds, eh? All your troubles are over.’
‘Well, it’s a start, isn’t it?’ Colin said, weakly.
Looking into his face, Mark felt a pang. ‘No, no. You’re right, of course. Sorry.’
‘There’s no need for envy. Do as he instructed you, and your luck’ll change too.’
They walked on to the High Road, where they parted.
Mark caught a bus home. When he got back in, weary, he undressed and threw himself down on his bed.
To be continued…