Moving through the Friday night drinkers, Andrew found a small table against one of the pub’s walls. It was too near the toilets, and it was sticky with splashes of dry beer, but at least it was tucked away. The nearest windows cast the sunlight, strong at pushing 7 o’clock, over the floorboards and the cracked walls, but left the table in shadow. That was good. He knew how rough he looked.
Andrew averted his gaze when a couple of older blokes emerged from the toilet entrance, talking loudly about the match tomorrow. They threaded through the drinkers and the other tables on their way to the bar. Three girls, probably no older than seventeen or eighteen, entered the pub through the infrequently used side door and headed straight for the Ladies’. Knowing he was expected to give them the eye, Andrew did so, checking out their legs in their mini-skirts and fishnet tights like he was at all interested, then looked back at his hands on the sticky table when the doors closed behind the girls.
Despite the shadows surrounding him, a few people were giving him the once over, having a gander at the scruffy man in need of a haircut and clean clothes, wondering when he’d last had a bath, sure he was going to start working his way around the pub to beg for change. Do that and either the landlord or some of the big lads drinking at the bar would chuck him out to the street; probably with a bit of a kicking to see him on his way so the paying customers could enjoy their Friday night in peace without his sort interfering. While signs reading no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish weren’t displayed around here anymore, he knew plenty of men would like to see those signs in the window again. He’d heard what people said about the business in Brixton a few months ago. He’d seen the looks shoppers gave him when they shied away instead of throwing a few pence in his plastic pot. And he definitely knew what the police thought of him: they made that clear with their fists and their feet and every single ugly word they spat at him.
Andrew tried to smile; it hurt his dry lips and made a small ulcer on his lower gum sting. As a distraction, he jammed a hand in the pocket of his tracksuit. Still there. The pound note the old gent had given him a few minutes earlier was safe along with the other couple of quid he’d managed to earn that day. Not a king’s ransom, but it would do. With a bit of luck, he could land a day’s work at the market tomorrow; Saturday was often the best day for cash-in-hand work. The traders didn’t give a shit what he smelled like or how he looked as long as he did what they said and did it fast. Get a bit extra and he could afford a night or two in a B&B that didn’t ask any questions. Then the next week, the cycle would start again: hanging around the train station, looking lost and unsure until a gentleman—always older and well-turned out in a suit, not wanting to go home to the lie he was living with his wife, kids, and family dog—asked if Andrew was all right, if he needed a hand. A look, a smile; holding their gaze for just the right length of time until the deal was done. Then all he had to do was grin and bear it before taking the cash. The men crept home to the Hertfordshire suburbs, and he returned to his life on the street.
This, more or less as it had happened outside a few minutes ago. A man had slipped him that pound note saying Andrew should get something to eat. The man walked on ahead ten steps (Andrew had counted each pace), then returned to introduce himself as Clive. He asked Andrew if he would like a quick pint. It was Friday night, after all, and every young man liked a pint on a Friday night.
So, here he was in the corner of the pub, pretending he was washed and clean and up for a few like any other twenty-five-year-old out on the pull. And it was all pretense, and it was all nothing compared to living day to day while his life fell further and further behind.
The girls came out of the toilets, and Andrew banished the hurt in his heart, replacing it with yet more pretense: he made no attempt to hide his ogling of their backsides. Big lads at the bar did the same. Someone wolf-whistled and the girls found a table before one took her handbag up to the bar. Music broke through the din of laughter and raised voices. The landlord turned up the little radio to blare Shakin Stevens, Green Door. Andrew hated it but hummed along to the tune.
Pretend. That was key. Even if nobody noticed, he had to pretend.
He watched Clive step between three blokes, moving more nimbly than his age might suggest possible.
“Careful now, dad,” one of the men said as beer splashed Clive’s hand. Clive replied—the words lost to Andrew in the music—and the men laughed, barrel chests shaking.
Andrew fixed a smile on his face as Clive reached the table and placed the pints down.
“Sorry that took a while. Busy in here, isn’t it?” Clive sat. They clinked their glasses, and lager foamed over Andrew’s glass. He sipped, reminding himself to drink slowly. There’d been no food since the apples and sausage roll he’d managed to nick at half two. Long hours ago. Now, an empty stomach and a pint of beer. He couldn’t get pissed—not with money to be made with his new friend.
Clive stayed silent for a moment, looking at the other drinkers. He paid the young girls, tarted up for the night out, all the attention everyone would expect. Andrew inhaled the scents of beer and fag smoke: some stale from the ashtray on their table and some fresh from the older lads rolling their own or the people his own age lighting up. Waiting for Clive to break the silence, he swallowed more beer and licked foam off his lips.
“Not your local, is it?” Clive asked.
“I don’t really have one to be honest.”
“No. I shouldn’t suppose you’re able to go out for a pint very often.”
“Not these days.” He went for another smile, hoping it looked more real than it felt.
Clive returned the smile, exposing even teeth. He looked all right for a bloke in his early sixties. Broad-shouldered, still with a fair bit of hair even if it was a combover; decent tone to his chest and arms underneath the turtleneck jumper and jacket he hadn’t removed despite the evening warmth. Tall, too. He had to be the same height as Andrew’s dad . . . but Andrew didn’t want to think about his dad. Even after two years, the memory of the old man chucking him out of the house brought a shame still bright and hot, and a fury that he should be made to feel guilt over who he was.
He dismissed the still-echoing yells of his dad calling him terrible things, and instead studied Clive. Overall, Clive could have passed for fifty: someone’s jolly uncle or maybe the granddad of a toddler. If he went to the pub on a Friday night, it would be to meet up with his mates or old colleagues, not with some homeless Black poof in need of a few quid to survive the streets. But then, Clive was the same as any other man Andrew had spent time with. Like him, they were all pretending. Clive would spend a few coins with Andrew and go home to his wife of however long. The need bubbling inside his chest and his mouth—the need to be himself—would sleep for days or weeks or months. Then it would wake, and he’d go looking for that chance to be free for a short time once again.
“So, tell me, Andrew. You’re young. You’ve got all your life’s potential. May I ask how you’ve ended up in this situation?”
“Sleeping rough?” He kept his voice low. Looking as he did was one thing; drawing attention to his situation was quite another.
“Yes,” Clive replied.
“Not much to say, really.” He sipped his beer, relishing the taste. “Family disagreements, bad luck, lack of money. The usual. You’ll have heard it before.”
Clive nodded and tapped Andrew’s free hand for a moment. Andrew had expected some physical contact sooner rather than later, but this connection hadn’t been suggestive, nor was it powered by any longing. It was a simple human comfort.
“Not much to say about myself either,” Clive said. Distance spread in from the edges of his eyes, turning them cloudy. It was as if long miles of forgotten farmland and woodland had grown up around their table, separating them from the town and all its life. Everything was cold and lonely, but strangely pleasant. In that isolation, that removal from all other life, Andrew felt he could take a breath and leave aside the bad days which had brought him to this point.
“Lost my wife a few years ago,” Clive said, and Andrew returned to the sticky table, the gnawing teeth in his belly and the music from the radio changing. Tainted Love. Almost funny enough to make him want to cry.
It was what his dad had called him. Tainted.