The louse made its way blindly upward, moistened by a passing bead of alcoholic sweat that cascaded down the man’s back, eventually dispersing into the cheap elastic of his underwear. The sweat stained shirt that clung to his back made the louse’s progress laboured before a jagged, nicotine stained fingernail cut it in two, its severed body wheeling in death throes before being transferred to a broken tooth as the man attempted to release the morsel of bacon stuck there since yesterday’s breakfast.
The young Indian girl next to him breathed into her hand, trying not to inhale the musty ammonia laced cloud that surrounded him but decided to leave early rather than keep up the pretence she reads with her airways covered.
The skin on his fingers was dry, giving the impression their tips were coated in dried glue which gradually became stained with ink from the libraries entire newspaper collection laid out in two piles before him. Absorbing the last few words of a bellowing tabloid, he added it to the pile on his right before taking a fresh one from his left.
The name Kathleen passed his cracked lips as his cloudy eyes scanned the words. “Sorry?” said the young student opposite, mistakenly believing he had been addressed by the shambolic figure across the table. “I’m looking for my Kathleen, she disappeared,” the man said with a kind smile that seemed out of context for such a sentence.
He wore a dark beige jacket that looked largely made out of rust and grime. The dark shirt underneath looked clean by comparison. Even his hair looked naturally musty, as if it had been coloured by cheap tobacco and the kind of fine concrete dust that coats the tongues of those passing building sites.
The young student cursed the fact he had forgotten his headphones at his girlfriend’s that morning. “Oh?” he said with enough inflection to be construed as a question. “Yes, the police said they believe that she’s either dead or doesn’t wish to be found but there is no way my Kathleen would have left me, no way,” he assured himself. “Well good luck with it, I hope you find her.” – “I’m sure I will.” The student’s eyes fell back in the direction of his books but couldn’t relax until he was sure the old man had finished.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He was about to answer when the old man continued regardless. “May 21st, 1977. The Green Man, Harlesden, around 10 in the evening, the moment I fell in love. Not many can be so precise eh?” He laughed heartily, revealing islands of black teeth that surely served little purpose. He looked down at the paper again. “Do dogs ever choke? They eat anything but I have never heard of a dog that has choked to death.”
The student began playing with his phone in the hope the old man would take the hint. “Christ I swear I’m a nutter magnet,” he began typing to his girlfriend, “Why do they always sit next to me? And why do they let them into libraries for fuck’s sake? How am I supposed to study with a urine stained tramp rambling at me? I swear he’s gonna kick off in a moment.” He liked to embellish the texts he sent to her, he felt he came across as quite dull sometimes and fretted constantly that she would lose interest in him.
“She wore a red rose in her hair, a real one, it was the best thing I’d ever seen, a single red rose. I thought to myself ‘If she could cultivate a thing of such beauty from her head, her thoughts must be as pure as freshly laid snow’ I was wrong about that,” he laughed deeply again, rarely lifting his head from the newspaper sprawled out in front of him. The laugh blended seamlessly into a cough that produced something solid enough to be seen passing down his throat as he swallowed. Catching his breath he continued. “We were married six months later, silly really but when you fall that deeply in love, you have little choice in the matter. Only a fool would try and fight a force that strong. They say love is fragile, don’t believe a word of it. Only death himself could have….” Suddenly a cold silence overcame him.
There was no way the young man could concentrate now, his curiosity had been aroused, this story held a damn sight more interest than the law books that seemed to frown disapprovingly in front of him. Even when he understood their words he had trouble absorbing their meaning. The uninvited attention of the old tramp had suddenly become a welcome distraction. Unfortunately he had now gone silent.
For a minute or two he thought of asking what happened to Kathleen but never really thought the pestilent looking man was addressing him. Eventually he tried to focus his mind, something he had found increasingly difficult lately.
“The distinction can be found by comparing Poussard v Spiers, 1876 and Bettini v Gye, 1876. In the first case ‘condition’ in the latter “Warranty’. It may not be conclusive that each party has described the term in the contract as a ‘Condition’ as this depends……
“In the time it took him to meet, fall in love and marry Kathleen I have still not managed to say a simple ‘I love you’” his mind interrupted, “I told her once in a drunken stupor but either she doesn’t remember or we have silently agreed to never mention it. She was looking at me strangely the next day, I always assumed this was an embarrassed silence but maybe she was hoping for me to say it again, without the several cans of lager? He turned the page out of habit, even though he hadn’t absorbed a single word for several paragraphs. “Why am I comparing myself to a tramp? Someone who doesn’t bathe is hardly someone to go to for relationship advice,” he smirked to himself and tried to focus again on the page, a page that seemed to have given up on paragraphs, instead deciding to stack its words like brickwork.
“Similarly in Rice v Great Yarmouth Council, 2000, a long term clause in the management agreement stated….” — “Hamsters on a wheel” the old man suddenly spluttered, “Oh thank fuck for that,” thought the student. “… That’s what we have. It’s not the pain that kills you, it’s the lack of pain you should be worried about. As long as I miss my Kathleen I know the hamster is still spinning that wheel.” He placed another paper to his right and lifted the next from the ever-shrinking pile on his left.
“What exactly are you looking for in the newspapers?” Asked the young student, hoping to keep him talking but it became increasingly obvious the old man didn’t require his presence to tell the story. “Pffft, cornflakes,” he said turning the page, “I don’t trust any food that comes in flakes, I’m not a goldfish.” There followed a pause as he carefully ironed out the newly opened paper in front of him. “Of course at that age I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I took her to the White City Dog Track. She told me afterwards that she hated it but didn’t have the heart to tell me HAHAHA!” His laugh resembled a clogged engine and made the young student worry he not make it through the next attack. “She was a hippy you see and animal rights were very important to her. You know I’ve never put a bet on an animal since? It’s amazing how love can change your morals, or even inspire new ones.” The last sentence roused something contemplative in him, something more self-reflective than sad. He smiled once more as if some warm memory turned on a light. “On the fourth race there was a dog called Rosehead, a complete outsider. I had to put 50p on her and I won a tenner, it was fate. With the winnings we went for a proper sit down meal, all the trimmings. You know I think that was the moment she fell for me? Something in her eyes softened, the eyes never lie.”
The young student leaned on his law books for a moment. His girlfriend had the softest eyes, big dark loving eyes that had the strangest effect on him. He had also seen enough of those same eyes when angry to know that this was not their resting state, this look was for him alone and he suddenly panicked at the thought of losing it.
“I come here every day looking for her, every day since she went missing. My guess is she suffered some injury, maybe lost her memory. It happens all the time you know?” The law books were now the furthest things from the student’s mind. “How long has she been missing?” The question escaped his lips without him really thinking about it, he knew the old man wasn’t listening to him but he had to know what had happened to Kathleen, he was missing her almost as much as the dishevelled figure opposite.
“She was meant to be home by nine that night, it was one of her friend’s birthdays. I would normally have joined them but was too tired. Never let work get in the way of love and happiness, you will only make some shower of bastards rich and yourself miserable.” There seemed little malice in his voice as he said this but the student felt a pang of antagonism inspired by being ensnared in his own career, a career that had yet to start. “Actually all functionality kills romance, you put a babies face to a nipple and the breast might as well be a toe nail there after.” The sexual undertones of this made the young man cringe a little, like the very young; the very old seem almost genderless and therefore sexless too, although he reckoned by the dates he told him the cobwebbed figure could be no older than sixty, his body insistence otherwise.
“She was never late so I was worried straight away. By ten I was already looking for her in all the pubs. Her friends said she left over an hour before. I couldn’t find her anywhere. I went to all the hospitals, nothing. I went home expecting her to be sat there wondering where I had been. I felt sick when I saw the place as still and undisturbed as when I left. I imagined she had maybe come home and left, looking for me. I decided to wait.” The old tramp’s voice had taken on a manic rhythm as he described a night that had clearly haunted him deeply since.
“By one in the morning I decided to go to the police, I’d never been in a police station without a set of handcuffs attached before,” he smiled to himself wryly. “They were no help, fobbed me off and told me to go and wait for her at home, that she would probably turn up drunk. If I hadn’t had so much on my mind I think I would have swung for him. I didn’t need a few days to pass to know something had happened, you feel it inside, deep in your stomach. Something precious had been torn from me. My Kathleen.” His jaw tensed into a rigid ball as a single tear landed on the newspaper in front of him, its jagged outline spreading to form a perfect circle. “That was the 27th of January, 1978. I had only known her eight months, if you believe that time can be measured in such a way.” The young student looked at him in astonishment. “You mean you have been coming to the library every day for thirty six years?” The old man looked him square in the eye for the first time and smiled as he placed the last of the newspapers to his right. “The hamster still turns the wheel.”
As he got unsteadily to his feet he collected his supermarket bag from the floor, struggling to negotiate past his chair whose legs seemed to be tangling around his own like wire coat hangers. Slowly he shuffled through the library’s automatic doors.
For a moment he couldn’t move, he felt a profound grief at the loss of a woman he had never met, the not knowing washed around his stomach like broken glass. In a panic he collected his phone, leaving his law books strewn across the table and left the library, frantically dialling. “Jules? Hi it’s me. I love you so much.”
© Dean Stephenson 2014