By Kenn Taylor
Leslie opened the dustpan-on-a-pole with a click of his finger and swept another pile of sweet wrappers, crisps and grit past the scarred, sticky plastic edge. Snapping it back closed he raised it up to the cart, casting an eye briefly on the lanky kid sat in the chair next to where he was working.
The kid had long, dark hair and patchy black stubble poking through his pale white skin. As Leslie watched him, he lent further forward on his elbows, sliding a little further off the arse-chilling perforated metal chair. He was clearly hungover, weary and keen to be right back wherever he came from.
Leslie shook the pan to empty it and, as he let go of the button with his thumb, it gave a satisfying click as it snapped back shut. As Leslie moved to clean under the next bench, the hungover lad lifted his arm casually up to look at his watch. Staring at it, his eyes began to widen and, without warning, he sized his backpack, leapt out of his seat and dashed towards the platform entrance.
From the moment the kid had leapt up though, his dash for the train ceased to be of any interest to Leslie. He was, as ever, focused on the floor, more specifically the large Styrofoam cup that had been knocked over as the lad grabbed his bag.
The plastic top had come off and its contents were now slowly emptying out across the deeply-scuffed Terrazzo tiles. The cup had tipped in an instant, but the thick, fizzy liquid poured out slowly, its viscous blackness overwhelming the fragmented yellow pattern of the tiles.
Leslie leaned silently on his brush as it the cup poured out. As all around him the station carried on oblivious, he squeezed his large baggy hand around the grey plastic handle, his sagging, worn skin briefly tightening, firm once more in anger. The old swallow tattoo that sat between his thumb and index finger also recovered its shape momentarily, though not its colour.
His eyes strained through his thick glasses and, for a moment, the old rage seemed to be overwhelming him. This offence, though small, was just another kick to an already broken pride. His throat cleared and his muscles tensed. ‘How dare the little fucking cunt do that,’ he thought.
In the past, revenge would have been his immediate reaction, to feel the satisfaction of violence, power, and respect. He felt his blood heat up but, as quickly as it came, this energy faded. Deep down he knew the strength was no longer there, and his rage was replaced by a burning frustration that churned deep in his stomach. He was left with only a tense indignation, an impotence that scared him and cut deep into his guts.
He looked down at the spilt Coke again, put his brush and pan back on the trolley, and pulled out the mop. He grimaced once more and silently began to slosh it back and forward through the liquid. The form of the Coke spreading out further across the floor with the action of the mop before it began to be absorbed and turn its stringy, mulchy ends a darker shade of grey.
Around Leslie, the spin of the station concourse continued; people complained to exasperated attendants, dragged heavy bags with tired arms, munched enthusiastically on over-priced sandwiches, posed gurning for passport photos, slunk wearily off delayed trains, looked curiously at information panels and gazed in wonder at the Victorian marvel of the roof. Trains moved in to fill the platform gaps, and then moved out again across the country. A thousand, small, ordinary dramas occurred, and Leslie noticed not a second of it.
To Leslie, the station had no romance, no intrigue. Through all the people and the movement, he saw only litter and dirt and never-ending work. Looking always downward, seeing only legs and shoes and, even then, noticing only the stains and the wear in them.
He pushed all of his weight onto the mop and pushed it with rare forces against the tiles. As it began to absorb the moisture, this extra little humiliation forced him to contemplate his lot in life.
The strong personality that had been formed through harsh times was now only a shadow of what it had been. The spirit remained, but it was now only a ghost in a slowly decaying frame.
He had been a big man, a man with a reputation. He may not have been a face as such, but he was someone who generated enough fear and respect to live as he wanted to live with relative ease. He was aided by the strong union power of the time, which enabled him to work the way he wanted. And of course, he was clever enough to let no woman tie him down.
Sharp in a suit, he was well-known and liked in the pubs around Kensington and the clubs in town. Still living with his family then, he had money enough for his smart clothes, his motorbike and, later, a car.
The world changed on Leslie though. And, more fundamentally, he didn’t realise that age always gets you in end, however quick or strong or smart you may be. First the speed goes, then the strength, then the wit, and then finally, the power. He ignored the first decline, but he began to come off worse in a few fights, the fear crept in, and slowly, he got used to the fact he was no longer the man he had once been.
In the new city, it was harder to pick and choose jobs, especially for an unskilled old man. Between spells on the social, he began to take worse employment and more shit from younger bosses. He walked out of a few jobs, and decked one employer. But he needed money for the bookies and the pub. So, he began to suppress the rage, till it died away.
While gambling debts curbed his free ways, a beer belly, sagging skin and thick glasses made him, even in a fluorescent vest, a ghost to all the attractive women who passed through the station everyday. No longer did they see the brooding power of a dangerous man. Instead they felt the slight indifference and suspicion of an old husk of something rotten.
He knew he was powerless now, and felt deeply the emptiness that created inside of him. Respect was now something to hope for not fight for.
Still, he knew he had lived in his own way, which was more than most men achieve. And, though bitter that a 28-year-old gobshite with a HND in Business Studies told him what to do every morning, in is head remained the desire in the eyes of all those women he had seduced, and the fear in the eyes of all those men he had threatened.
And, if it came to it, he knew he would still fight them to the finish. He had promised himself one thing as a young man; that he would keep his face up for as long as he could, even if it meant the end of him. It was the only way to live, without fear; snarling and scratching till your last breath.
Now though, it came to him. He sensed a blackness in the near distance. Even this indignity he could cope with, but soon, before the end, he would be totally dependent, frail, finally a victim to age rather than a stronger opponent. But, he thought, don’t dwell, and grimaced as he noticed a blonde girl drop a yellow polystyrene carton on the floor by the Burger King.
This appeared in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Crazy Oik.