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ADVANCE PRAISE FOR
LONDON SKIN & BONES



“In London Skin & Bones, a corner of the past comes alive, regenerates flesh and muscle, and throws on a coat (with a freshly–rolled joint tucked in its pocket) to wander a neighborhood populated by an unlikely, diverse tribe of friends who weave in and out of stories with familiarity so warm you’ll wonder if these tales came from your own memory—or your own dreams. Ian Young knows you can fall in love with a city with the same enthusiasm and eroticism you fall for a person, and deep in blue-collar London of the 1980s, with its eclectic shops and sporadic downpours, its veterans and refugees of other countries’ wars, its confident sexuality rising like a collective adolescence, an easy mingling occurs. Reading these stories, you’re not a stranger in a strange land. You’re a traveler welcome to a cup of something warm or something strong, someone’s hand tapping lightly on your shoulder with an invitation to join the next spectacular adventure right around the corner.”

—Bryan Borland, author of DIG and Less Fortunate Pirates



“Like Isherwood’s ‘I Am a Camera’ Berlin Stories, Young’s interlocking London stories of Lad Culture, told by a book-loving ex-pat photographer, are droll mugshots of boxers, shop boys, immigrant gangsters, stoned philatelists, and their older tor/mentors who survived the 1940s Blitz easier than 1980s Thatcherism. A marvelous book! Quoting Noel Coward, ‘I couldn’t have liked it more!’”

—Jack Fritscher, PhD, author of Mapplethorpe and Gay San Francisco



“Ian Young gives us a wonderful sense of a particular time and place in 1980s London, but he does so much more than simply that. His fascinating cast of skinheads, scoundrels (charming ones at that), collectors, and eccentrics turns the cliché of the ‘city as character’ on its head, reminding us of a neglected truth: that a city is its people, that the flow of beautiful, flawed and fascinating people is what gives a town, and a life, its texture and vitality. Even better, he shows us this in interwoven vignettes that are as unfailingly delightful as they are edifying.”

—Peter Dubé, author of The City’s Gates and Beginning with the Mirror



“In 1980, Ian Young came to live in an area of north London where we so-called Londoners never thought of setting foot. We made a big mistake! Resident there was a colony of more colorful figures than could ever be imagined—refugees, skinheads and shopkeepers, decent, kindly, humorous, perhaps not always absolutely honest folk (Russell the landlord ran the Blind Guide Dogs charity racket), enduring a repressive Tory government but determined to live life to the full. Young is not the first London chronicler since Dickens to use the short-story format, but the time has come to put the earlier books up for a while and settle down with London Skin & Bones. All hail Ian Young, the Boz of Finsbury Park!”

—Timothy d’Arch Smith, author of The Frankaus and The Books of the Beast



“Great fun getting to know the colorful inhabitants of a seedy London neighborhood where gays and gay life are, refreshingly, part of the ordinary world. The book is marvelously observed and written, and proves that when gays are seen as real people, we don’t need the usual melodrama of ‘being gay.’”

—Edward Field, author of After the Fall: Poems Old and New



“Skinheads, punks, boxers, and refugees—Ian Young’s 1980s’ Finsbury Park is ground zero for the queerest of the queer. If fiction is about character, Ian Young’s stories are masterpieces, shedding light on gay life in a colorful working-class London neighborhood. Radically gay and radically political, Young is always a refreshing voice in gay letters. This is fresh fiction—unlike anything you’ve read. Move over Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Finsbury Park has arrived!”

—Trebor Healey, author of A Horse Named Sorrow and Eros & Dust



* * *

ALSO BY THE AUTHOR



POETRY

White Garland: 9 Poems for Richard

Year of the Quiet Sun

Double Exposure

Some Green Moths

Invisible Words

Common-or-Garden Gods

Sex Magick

Cool Fire: 10 Poems (with Richard Phelan)

Lions in the Stream (with Richard Phelan)

Schwule Poesie (with Joachim Hohmann)

The Male Muse: A Gay Anthology (editor)

Son of the Male Muse: New Gay Poetry (editor)

Yes Is Such a Long Word: Selected Poems of Richard George-Murray (editor)

On Mallard Feet: Poems by Joseph Lipson (editor)

Curieux d’Amour by Jacques d’Adelsward Fersen (translator)



FICTION

On the Line: New Gay Fiction (editor)



NONFICTION

The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory

Gay Resistance: Homosexuals in the Anti-Nazi Underground

The Beginnings of Gay Liberation in Canada

Out in Paperback: A Visual History of Gay Pulps

Encounters with Authors: Scott Symons, Robin Hardy, Norman Elder

Overlooked & Underrated: Essays on Some 20th Century Writers (editor)

The AIDS Cult: Essays on the Gay Health Crisis (editor, with John Lauritsen)

The Radical Bishop & Gay Consciousness: The Passion of Mikhail Itkin (editor, with Mark A. Sullivan)



REFERENCE

The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography

The AIDS Dissidents: An Annotated Bibliography

The AIDS Dissidents: A Supplement to the Annotated Bibliography



* * *

LONDON SKIN & BONES

The Finsbury Park Stories





IAN YOUNG





with illustrations by

William Kimber





Squares & Rebels

Minneapolis, MN



* * *

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



Some of the stories in this collection were first published in the anthologies Best Gay Stories of 2012 (Lethe Press), Boys of the Night (StarBooks), A Casualty of War (Arcadia Press), The Mammoth Book of Gay Short Stories (Robinson Publishing and Carroll & Graf), Serendipity: The Gay Times Book of New Stories (Gay Men’s Press), Speak My Language & Other Stories (Constable & Robinson), and What Love Is (Arcadia Press), and in the periodicals Callisto, Chelsea Station, Jonathan, and Lambda Philatelic Journal.

My thanks to the editors of these publications, to William Kimber for providing the illustrations, to Jerry Rosco and Wulf for their editorial assistance, and to the late Richard George-Murray, who provided the title for “Take These Pearls.”





DISCLAIMER



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.





COPYRIGHT



London Skin & Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories.

Copyright © 2017 by Ian Young.



Illustrations by William Kimber.



Cover Design: Mona Z. Kraculdy

Cover Photograph (“Andy behind the boxing club”): Ian Young





SMASHWORDS LICENSE STATEMENT


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Squares & Rebels

PO Box 3941

Minneapolis, MN 55403-0941

USA

E-mail: squaresandrebels@gmail.com

Online: squaresandrebels.com



Printed in the United States of America.

Print ISBN: 978-1-941960-07-3



A Squares & Rebels First Edition.



* * *





for Wulf





* * *

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.”

—Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1777





“I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs ... No one lives in it without falling into some sort of crime. Every quarter of it abounds in great obscenities ... You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite ... jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evil-doers, do not live in London.”

—Richard of Devizes, c. 1185





“Yesterday, in Babylon,

Tomorrow we be in Zion!

But what of today, my friend?

O my brother, what of today?”

—Reggae song, c. 1980





* * *

STORIES

Just Another Night in Finsbury Park


The Tall Boys Club


Flags of the Vlasov Army


A Boy’s Book of Wonders


Soakers & Scavengers


The Buggery Club


The Man Who Shot Peabody Dredd


Take These Pearls


Mrs. Singh’s Tandoori Popcorn


The Boy in the Blue Boxing Gloves


In My Dreams I Can Drive


Sexual Alternatives for Men


One for the Old Sarge



* * *

JUST ANOTHER NIGHT IN FINSBURY PARK





Darkness comes on quickly in the autumn evenings, and Finsbury Park—even in daytime the grayest of London districts—succumbs passively to a chilly gloom. Deserted streets become more depressing under the hard magnesium glare of silver lamps jutting from concrete pillars, too high for vandals to bother with.

London is a conglomeration of villages that have been absorbed over the centuries by the spreading city. Each has its own High Street and its own small park. Some of these districts are green and picturesque, but Finsbury Park is not one of them. Tucked into a neglected pocket of North-East London, it was a dusty, ugly district of looming Victorian and Edwardian row houses made over into flats, of oil shops and repair garages struggling to survive, of boarded-up factories and crumbling brickworks, and a few scraggly paradise bushes poking out of the dirt of neglected gardens.

At its center, gathering rubbish and wind-blown newspapers, a grimy brick and stone tube station of indeterminate age squats under a jumble of rusting bridges, like some enormous collapsed machine. Twice a day it stirs itself to life, wheezing and clanging in the crush of shuffling rush-hour crowds, and then emptying, leaving its musty passageways and dreary tunnels as desolate and lifeless as before.

On the streets off the Holloway Road, at random intervals among the tall stone houses, identical rectangular patches of grass appear, provided by the local council with one bench and one—only one—bush apiece. At the edges of these utilitarian parkettes, the walls of the remaining buildings show the paint and plaster outlines of what once were houses: for the little parks are the last of the wartime bomb sites, playgrounds now for quiet Indian children watched over by their sari-clad grandmothers.

This is the London that Thatcherism passed by—and left even more broken and depressed. It was not the worst London had to offer by any means: it hadn’t sunk to the despair that wafted like a bad smell through the crime-infested filth of Brixton. It was just a gray area, a pocket for dreary weather, with an odd, unsettling quietness about it. Some of the abandoned buildings had been taken over by squatters—young, homeless, unemployed. A few storefront groceries run by Rastamen kept erratic hours selling take-out patties and bags of flour. Sikhs and Chinese stayed open a little later than anyone else. By nine o’clock, no one was on the streets, and most of the house-lights were out. Only the sweeping headlights and the swish of cars on their way to other places kept the district from appearing completely deserted.

The boarding house I lived in was the last of a line of crumbling, wedding-cake gothic piles on Turle Road. Before the bombing it had been in the middle of a row called Finsbury Mansions, but a couple of direct hits had demolished the end of the street. Part of the empty space was now a hideous secondary school, sardonically named after George Orwell. The rest served as the local cricket pitch. Some evenings indistinct figures would linger there for a while after dark, running through the thick shadows (there were no lights) and sometimes calling to one another, determined to finish their game before rain or total darkness sent them home.

That fall the evenings were especially cold and damp, and I would bundle up in my old tweed overcoat and brown wool scarf for my nine o’clock walk down High Street and through the twisting back roads, with a packet of shrimp chips in my pocket and—if it was a Friday night—(what luxury!) a precious, thinly rolled joint.

It wasn’t raining when I set out, but a cool wind was springing up, blowing papers and discarded wrappers through the weeds in the boarding house garden. Fugitive newspaper pages clung to the rosebushes by the wall like crude veils. In the autumn cold I hunched against the damp English wind that gives half the population chest complaints by middle age. My friend the black and white cat wasn’t at his usual windowsill perch tonight: probably inside, sensible and warm.

I headed for a little row of shops on one of the winding back streets. The street lamps there were older, and more friendly than the penitentiary-style lighting above the main road. The shops were shut of course, most of their windows dusty and unrevealing, or lit by a single bare low-watt bulb. Heath’s Tools had a front window full of secondhand engines, belt drives, and odd-looking gears. A faded cardboard sign, left over from the Sixties by the look of it, incongruously promised “Fun in the Sun” on Majorca. I cupped my hand, pressed my nose against the glass, and peered inside. Metal desks and wooden swivel chairs were piled on one another, and off to one side, a battered-looking garden gnome presided, arms akimbo. At the back a table was piled high with papers and tins. It began to spit rain.

The chemist’s shop was the only one of the row, on either side of the street, with a properly illuminated window. Fluorescent lights threw a flickering glow onto tubes of toothpaste and stacked boxes of paper towels. A poster showed a well-groomed young couple, each smiling into the other’s face while running along a beach, bizarrely dressed in a selection of trusses, supports, and elastic knee bandages. I thought of collaging it with “Fun in the Sun,” perhaps adding a tank or two, and some picturesque beggars.

The raindrops began to get bigger and I smelled the distinctive, musty odor of rain on dusty cement. I ducked into the doorway of an Indian grocery; its windows were piled high with sacks of rice, dented tins of curried okra, and faded sample packets of custard powder and Ovaltine. From a window above the shop across the road, a light revealed a room with beige walls and a painting of a country cottage of the sort used for the tops of biscuit tins. No one seemed to be in the room. I leaned back against the doorjamb of the grocery and took the slightly bent joint out of my pocket. I was about to light it when I heard someone whistling.

The tune was familiar, a haunting, slightly melancholy dance that scurvy, syphilitic old Henry VIII had expropriated along with the monasteries, and passed off as his own. “Greensleeves”—and the metal-cleated footsteps that came with it—told me who it was even before I spotted him from my shadowy doorway.

“Andy!”

“Fuck, why’ncha frighten the life out o’ me like creeping Jesus!”

“Sorry. Here, come in out of the rain and smoke a joint with me.”

“Yeah, right on man. What a pissy night, i’n it.”

Andy was a fellow boarder at the lodging house we called “the mansion.” He was an intriguing fellow, a bit secretive, usually friendly, but a bit moody and unpredictable. He was a skinhead, and I had never seen him go out in anything but regulation skinhead garb: jeans held up by black braces, work-shirt or T-shirt, work socks, and one of half-dozen pairs of Doc Martens, to which he added a trademark touch of his own, metal cleats—“the better to kick your fuckin’ head in wiv.” In fact, Andy was remarkably gentle by nature until the rare occasions when some real or imagined indignity to himself or another triggered his violent temper and he erupted in a reckless storm of fists, boots and fury. He worked at odd jobs, mostly on building sites and installing industrial carpeting. Like most skinheads, he took pride in being scrupulously clean.

Andy was tall like me. His lean body and strong hands constrasted with luminous, long-lashed green eyes, full lips, and prominent cheekbones. He had a sneering smile that seemed cheeky, mischievous, and appealing. With those he liked (the rest he preferred to ignore), he adopted a quiet, conspiratorial manner that assumed an immediate intimacy. He was tremendously sexy.

He joined me in the shop doorway and turned down the collar of his leather jacket.

“Sid came round today,” he said, dragging on the joint. “We went for a ride in his car, out to his place. Ever been out there?”

“I have indeed,” I said as he blew the smoke into the street. “Nice house he has. Epping, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Epping, near the forest.”

“I don’t know why he keeps it so gloomy though. The dining room and the front room look as though he never goes into them. I don’t think he ever opens the curtains either. Bit creepy. He’s a funny bloke.”

Sid Brown was a fiftyish Jewish stockbroker who’d gone into early retirement so he could write and live an openly gay life. Somehow he hadn’t gotten around to doing much of either and instead had become something of a recluse, puttering about his semi-detached in a housing estate at the edge of the Forest and occasionally venturing into central London with enough money to pick up a rent-boy, which is how he’d met Andy, who was sometimes willing to supplement his wages with the right customer.

Sid had become an occasional welcome visitor to the mansion—nervous, funny, a little seedy, and alternately miserly or generous, as the mood struck him. He always wore a Gay Is Good badge pinned to his suit-jacket, and smoked constantly, usually letting the ash tumble off his lapels into his wool cardigan.

“He’s got some great old boxes in that place,” Andy said. Antique boxes were one of his odd interests. “You know what he said to me?” he asked, unscrewing a roach-clip that looked like a bullet. “I think he’s a bit lonely out there all on his own. He asked me if I wanted to move in with him—you know, into the house in Epping like. Asked me a couple of weeks ago.”

Andy looked straight into my eyes, nodding slightly, nodding, nodding, as he did whenever he wanted to be sure you were paying attention.

“Permanently?” I said, stupidly, raising my voice a bit.

“Yeah, of course!” He sounded a bit indignant. “He says I could do a bit of gardening for him and help out around the house like. Says I can type up his manuscripts for him and ... we might go into business together.”

“What sort of business?” I asked as a picture of Andy with a tea towel in his hand flitted through my mind. It would certainly be a change! We were huddling together against the shop door now, Andy in his jeans and black leather jacket and me in my overcoat, sharing the last of the joint. It was strong grass and we were both getting a nice buzz.

“This is good grass, man. From the Rastas?”

I nodded.

“Financial advice,” he replied to my question, with a leer that turned into a grin. I’d forgotten his chipped front tooth. “Or maybe he just wants to pimp me to wealthy gents. Anyway, it’ll get me out of the mansion, won’t it. Your room is all right but mine’s fucking cold. And too bloody noisy by the toilet.” He turned suddenly toward me and ran his fingers up my lapels, looking me straight in the face. “Here, d’you think I’m too old to do it for money?” I could see his breath and feel it, warm against my mouth.

“You’re in your prime, my darling!”

“Fuck off!”

“No, seriously. If you want to do it, you can. You’re good-looking, you can get all the tricks you want. Just remember though, kiddo, unless you’re planning to do yourself in soon, there is a future to be thought of.”

“Yeah, well. That’s what I mean.” He took a sudden look around the street as if he’d heard someone coming. “I’m sick of round here. There’s nuffing for me, nuffing at all. I like old Sid. It’ll be all right, moving in with him. I mean, I didn’t say I would. Said I’d think about it. He was a bit pissed off, I think.”

“Well, you don’t want to look too eager, do you?”

“Well, no.”

“Did he go down on one knee when he proposed to you?”

“Fuck off or you’ll get my knee in your balls. Epping’s a bit boring but I expect I’ll get used to it. Not that this place is so fuckin’ exciting.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Look, the rain’s eased up. We can walk down to the laundrette and see if Mrs. Singh’s cleaning the machines. She might favor us with a song or some popcorn. See, always something to do.”

“Ha. Ha.”

We were both buzzed by this point. I noticed Andy was wearing his tight jeans, ripped in one knee and nicely outlining his crotch. He was leaning against the shop window with his head back and his eyes closed, hands in his jacket pockets, one boot-heel hooked on the window ledge. He looked great. I leaned against him with my things around his and clasped my hands around the back of his neck; short, sharp hairs pricked my palms.

“Kiss me you fool,” he ordered, his eyes shut.

His mouth felt warm and his tongue scraped against my teeth. He kept his tongue in my mouth for a long time before he broke away.

“Shit,” he said, looking around. “I’m getting cold.”

“Let’s go home then.”

“We’ll go home and fuck.”

Well, I thought, lucky me.

The mansion always looked odd standing at the end of the street where the row came to a sudden stop, a ragged wall showing the traces of what had once been stairways in an adjoining house. As we came near, Andy broke away and ran ahead of me onto the uncut grass, jumping high in the air and swinging his latchkey on a string over his head, not making a sound. On the back of his leather jacket he’s painted a white A in a circle and SKINS RULE underneath. His small bottom look good in his tight-fitting jeans. Sid wasn’t the only one who wanted to get into that ass. Andy would never let him—or anyone else.

The house looked dark from the outside but the kitchen light was on in the back, as always.

“Cup of tea, Andy?”

“Yeah, get warmed up. Be down in a minute.”

It was bright in the kitchen. Electric wires and disconnected pipes hung from the ceiling and a row of new linoleum stood in one corner, ready to replace the cracked Victorian floor tiles that had worn thin, exposing the blackened wood beneath. The window over the table looked out onto a ramshackle porch that had been a greenhouse. Now it was full of old furniture, rolled-up carpets, broken bicycles and gritty flowerpots.

I put the kettle on and looked at the clock. Too late for the news. Then I saw the note pinned to the television. It was from Russell, our landlord.



Lads—gone over to gay painting show at Pink Triangle. Yes I’ve come over all artists all of a sudden! Frozen meat pies in the fridge, help yourselves.

Did you hear, Sid’s decided to go to Australia—Sydney. Sidney in Sydney. To live with his sister, his Mum’s very ill. Says he’s sick of living on his own. He’s put the house up for sale and all his furniture, silly bugger so I don’t suppose he’ll be coming back. I’m going to buy that hall-stand. Says he’s got to go next week. Shall we give him a party?

The back toilet is plugged up again.

Be good I know you will!



The kettle shrieked as I took the cups off the hooks. Andy came downstairs, without his coat and shirt now, just in his jeans, braces and boots, but with his glasses on. The round, old-fashioned National Health specs gave him a strangely scholarly look. His bare chest was smooth and white, at odds somehow with his brown neck and big hands. One shoulder had a tattoo I liked, a Robertson’s Marmalade golliwog waving.

“You’ll come and see us—out in Epping—won’t you? We’ll all have tea in the drawing room. Lah di dah!”

“Of course,” I said. “If it all works out.” I folded Russell’s note and stuck it under the radio, trying not to think too hard.

Would it have been possible? I imagined solitary, neurotic, fiftyish Sid, dithering about in a cloud of cigarette ash and suspicion, and horny, twenty-year old Andy, with his ornamental boxes and violent fits, the two of them settling into domestic bliss together among the suburban families. Pretty bloody unlikely. On the other hand, you never know. I looked out the window. The back garden beyond the greenhouse was nothing but blackness. The last cricket players had gone home; the rest of the boarders were asleep, or nowhere in sight. Only the two of us up and about now, just me and Andy, under the kitchen light. Outside the wind was springing up again, and the greenhouse windows were rattling.

“Yeah. If it works out,” Andy answered. “I really like the forest, all the green trees. I like that funny wet smell the earth gets.” He carried the tea mugs over to the arborite table. “Yeah, I’m getting too old for it, man. Gotta settle down. Gotta get fuckin’ organized.” Then without a pause: “You think old Sid would rent you a room?” And suddenly he was looking right at me again with those clear green eyes.

He was quiet for a moment. He swallowed a mouthful of tea and leaned back to tip the chair on its back legs, hooked his thumbs in his braces, and flashed his grin at me.

“Let’s go to your room,” he said. “It’s nicer than mine.” He took his glasses off and laid them gently on the table. “Is this the new tea?”

“Yes. From Russell’s Mum,” I reminded him. “Expensive!”

“The best, eh!” he laughed, and I laughed too. “Right on! Only the fuckin’ best!”

And we headed upstairs with our half drunk tea as the damp English wind rattled the loose panes in the greenhouse door.




He joined me in the shop doorway and turned down the collar of his leather jacket.”



* * *

THE TALL BOYS CLUB





Almost as soon as I moved into Russell Hicks’s rooming house in the London district they called The Park, I began to hear about the character they called—some jocularly, others rather dismissively—“the poet of the laundrettes.” Though it was true that Seamus Moore was a poet, his verses —usually long and rhyming, often sarcastic and sometimes venomous—were not printed in any books or magazines that I had seen but declaimed from shop doorways and at political rallies. (These were the early days of Mrs. Thatcher’s regime and in The Park she was heartily disliked and much demonstrated against.)

A week after I moved in, I hauled a duffle bag full of dirty clothes to the local laundrette and, while waiting for the rinse cycle, cast my eyes over the various notes, ads, business cards, and Lost Cat notices pinned to the crowded bulletin board. Among them was a neatly typed letter from Seamus Moore. The laundrette, dowdy, clean, and open six days a week (closed Mondays), was presided over by the plump, amiable wife of the local veterinarian, and as well as providing a necessary service to those lacking their own laundry facilities, doubled as something of a local meeting place. It was warm, there were plastic chairs to sit on, and in front of the shop, chained to an iron pipe, was a wooden bench that provided a good view of the unredeemed bomb site across the narrow street. Mrs. Singh seldom minded extra company. And her tandoori popcorn was a favorite local treat. (Recipe: “You just shake the fresh powder in while it pops!”)

Seamus Moore, I was soon to find out, was in the habit of writing Letters to the Editor, addressed to a variety of newspapers and periodicals from the Times of London to Gay News. The letters were almost always abusive, usually beginning with some variant of “What an unpleasant, small-minded little man (or old woman) your so-called theatre reviewer (or film reviewer or editorial writer) must be.” These missives would invariably characterize women, regardless of age or physical stature, as “old” and “fat”; men as “dirty” and “little.” Generic abuse would then give way to more detailed complaints, often of major length. These communications were seldom accepted for publication, though the Hampstead and Highgate Shoppers News occasionally printed brief excerpts, invariably provoking a small flurry of communications the following fortnight as all over North East London indignant middle-aged women in cardigans took up their pens to upbraid Mr. Moore for his unacceptable, irresponsible, and indeed shameful opinions. Seamus’s letters, together with any subsequent correspondence, were made available for public viewing on the laundrette notice board until officially replaced by fresh grievances. The letter that morning, intended for a Welsh poetry magazine, was typically unprintable.

I had yet to connect the author of the sarcastic notice-board letter to the man I had avoided on High Street a day or two before. I had been emerging from Featherstone’s Groceteria with a heavy bag of potatoes and onions when I heard a commotion half a block away. A big, tall, raw-boned man in his fifties, with a grizzly, close-cropped, salt-and-pepper beard, and a loud voice, was shouting abuse at a rotund, middle-aged woman in a brightly colored woolen hat.

“I’d rather exchange bleatings and fartings with an intoxicated sheep than stand all morning in the public thoroughfare trading insults with some spittle-flecked old harridan.” The woman, whose face I couldn’t see, turned on her heel and stomped off, making a few remarks of her own, perhaps something in the order of “Who’re you callin’ an ‘arridan?”

When I got home with my groceries I mentioned the incident to Russell, my landlord, who was lying on the kitchen floor. “Oh, that’ll be Seamus Moore,” he said, looking up from painting a strip of wainscotting. “He’s well known in these parts. His bark is worse than his bite.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said.

“He’s got a bit of a temper and a lot of people give him a wide berth.”

“He seemed quite abusive, I’m surprised someone doesn’t take a poke at him. Or does he only pick fights with old ladies?”

“Oh, no,” Russell assured me. “He’ll take on anyone. He usually has a good reason but he does tend to overreact a bit.” We both laughed. “The locals indulge him though ‘cause he’s something of local hero.” And Russell proceeded to tell me his version of how Seamus Moore had foiled an attempted armed robbery at Mrs. Singh’s laundrette.

Over the week or so that followed, I was told two or three different versions of this local legend and soon forgot whose story was whose. But the basis of what happened was the same in all versions. Apparently Seamus Moore arrived at Mrs. Singh’s a minute or two after opening time one foggy morning, ready to pin one of his pronouncements to the bulletin board. To his surprise, another man was there before him, a thin, scruffy looking character in a windbreaker and Plimsolls, with a kitchen knife in his hand.

Mrs. Singh was understandably quite frightened and was telling the man there was no money in the shop that early in the day. (There was money in the cash tin on a hidden shelf behind the back counter but Mrs. Singh felt no obligation to mention it.) As the door opened, ringing its little bell, the man waved his weapon in Seamus’s direction.

Seamus, as it happened, was carrying his stick that day—a handsome shillelagh (he called it a “knobkerry”) of polished diamond willow with a rubber tip and a weighted head. He didn’t need the stick for walking but often carried it anyway, using it to poke at things and smash the headlamps of cars whose speed or trajectory he deemed reckless.

Apparently Seamus spoke a few words to the man, standing aside and suggesting (in a tone either soothing or menacing, depending on whose version you were listening to) that it might be better if the intruder just left and then everyone could forget all about so silly an incident. The man seemed at first to concur and prepare to leave but, as he approached the door, he lunged at Seamus with the knife. Seamus, who’d been an amateur boxer in more youthful days and fortunately still had his reflexes, pulled back and suddenly alarmed Mrs. Singh by dropping to his knees on the freshly-washed linoleum. This took the intruder by surprise and as he hesitated, Seamus swung his stick into action in a wide arc, catching the man across both shins with a smart crack. The miscreant was then disarmed and thrown into the street, the door locked, and Mrs. Singh hustled out the back way to the nearby boxing club where she was made a cup of tea with a little whisky in it. From that day on, Seamus’s notices were always given pride of place on the laundrette bulletin board and only permitted to be removed by Seamus himself. The intruder was never seen again.

So by the time I spotted Seamus Moore sitting on a park bench, I knew (secondhand) something of his mettle as well as having sampled (firsthand) a little of his vituperative style of public communication. I was heading home for an early dinner when I spied him. Avoiding him would have been awkward. I prepared to walk past him, assuming he had no reason to rescue, injure or shout at me. But as I drew near, he looked up from the book in his lap, flashed a broad smile, and waved me over.

“Do you have a light by any chance this fine evening?” The accent was London but the intonation suggested Ireland or Liverpool. I pulled a book of matches from my coat.

“Ah, you’re a fine lad!” He dug into an inside pocket and withdrew an old-fashioned silver cigarette case. As he opened it, I saw it contained no cigarettes but rather several very large joints. “I’m sorry if you like tobacco, a filthy habit. But will you join me in a few puffs of this my own personal mix?”

“I would indeed,” I said as I joined him on the bench and lit a reefer for him. He inhaled deeply and passed it to me. “This is fine Jamaican from Kenny de Jong with a bit of damiana added to smooth it out and cool it down and how’s y’r father. Well, they say damiana’s an aphrodisiac but it’s never made me any more randy than I already am. I think you have to drink it as a tea for that, you might keep it in mind.”

“Very nice,” I said, savoring the first hit I’d had for weeks. Seamus Moore and I introduced ourselves and he asked whether I knew the aforesaid Kenny de Jong. I told him no, I’d only just moved to the neighborhood.

“Kenny works at the Lion Garage with the other Rastas, lovely fine fellas, young Kenny especially, you want to get to know them.” As we sat and smoked, I got a good look at Seamus Moore for the first time. He was a big man, about 6’3”, bare-headed and long-haired, broad-shouldered and imposing in what I learned was his usual garb of gray greatcoat, flannels, work socks, and black plastic sandals. As he handed me the joint I noticed he had extraordinarily large hands, heavily veined, with long, spatulate fingers and large, discolored, deeply grooved nails that splayed out, obscuring his fingertips. He had a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and hairy ears. His rather Roman nose had a pronounced dent in the middle of it.


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