Alby Stone: A Matter of Life and Death, Whatever

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

Shackleton was bloody cold. Like his long-ago namesake he had trekked across what seemed like hundreds of miles of ice and snow and had now arrived, hungry and thirsty, on his friend’s doorstep, hoping for a mug of coffee and perhaps a hot meal. He was wearing thermal underwear and socks, thick grey gloves and a quilted blue coat with the hood drawn up. Beneath the coat he wore a white string vest, blue t-shirt, a lined green plaid cotton shirt and a black woollen jumper. The lower part of his face was hidden by a red acrylic scarf. The layers didn’t prevent him believing that hypothermia was imminent. He couldn’t feel his feet and his fingers hurt as the sub-zero temperature played havoc with his arthritis.

Toby Morris opened the door and quickly ushered him inside. The climate inside the house – you couldn’t merely call it a temperature – was a marked contrast to the conditions outside. It was very hot and unpleasantly humid. Morris was prone to bronchitis – or so he said; Shackleton had never known him to be laid up with anything more debilitating than a mild cold – and some years before had formed an unshakeable belief in the preventive use of humidifiers. Within a couple of minutes Shackleton felt less like an Antarctic explorer and more like a man who had unwittingly parachuted into a tropical rain forest. He removed his boots and peeled away clothing until he wore only the string vest and t-shirt above the waist. There wasn’t much he could do about the thermal underpants, not without giving Morris the wrong idea. Morris had enough of those to be getting on with. Shackleton opted to sweat instead and was less grateful than he might otherwise have been for the proffered mug of coffee.

‘I phoned out for a Thai curry,’ Morris cheerfully informed him.

Shackleton’s heart sank. Despite the bitter cold he had left outside, he was already beginning to dream of ice cream and chilled salad.

‘So what was so important that you dragged me over here on a bloody awful night like this? There must be six inches of snow out there already. I slipped over at least five times. I could’ve broken something.’

‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve just found out,’ said Morris excitedly. ‘You know that woman Jean, the one who runs that little shop down by the river? You know the one, the New Age bookshop with the crystal balls and runestones and amulets in the window. Well, she told me this morning that I’m psychic and would be given a message by the spirits this afternoon, a message with serious implications for all humanity.’

Shackleton’s heart sank further. Morris was highly susceptible to fads and fancies. It was only a month or so ago that he’d become convinced he could win the Lotto using a kind of spread betting technique he’d read about on the internet. He’d spent a whole week’s Jobseekers Allowance on tickets and Shackleton had fed him until his next payment. But the sole ten pound winning line had encouraged him to believe he was on the path to unimaginable wealth if he did it again. Only Shackleton’s threat of violence had dissuaded him.

Indeed, Morris had trodden many paths to enlightened self-improvement and had got precisely nowhere. He’d tried Scientology and several variants, Kabbalah, chanting, Krishna Consciousness, neurolinguistic programming, transcendental meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy – and he was still the same sad, deluded loser that he’d always been. Morris always thought that buying the book or signing up to the course would be enough. Putting in the work never occurred to him. And now he thought he was a bloody psychic.

‘So what happened?’ Shackleton asked wearily.

‘Well, I had a lie-down after lunch, my usual afternoon nap. While I was asleep – except I wasn’t asleep, not really, it was a kind of mystical trance – I had a dream. Well, it wasn’t really a dream, more of a vision sort of thing. It was about you. I dreamed that you would save the world.’

‘Me? How?’ Shackleton suspected that his friend’s dream – the vision – probably owed something to the weed Morris liked to smoke prior to his afternoon snoozes. But he was, he had to admit, intrigued.

Morris was excited. ‘I don’t know. The spirits didn’t show me that. All I saw was this big headline on the front page of a newspaper – Brian Shackleton Saves Our Bacon. There was a big photo of you with that woman, the one that actor was going out with until she went off with that footballer and it turned out he was shagging his manager’s wife, so she – the woman, not the manager’s wife – went to Africa and made that documentary about the starving kids and how sad it was that they didn’t have ice-cream and when she came back from that she went on I’m a Celebrity even though she isn’t one, not really, and she had that big row with the bloke from Emmerdale who only pretended to eat his maggots. You know the one. The woman, that is – not the bloke from Emmerdale. I know you don’t watch the soaps.’

Shackleton didn’t have the faintest idea who Morris meant. His friend’s obsession with celebrity trivia had always puzzled him.

‘Anyway,’ Morris enthusiastically went on, ‘she was giving you a big kiss on the cheek on an open-topped bus with cheering crowds in Trafalgar Square, it had Nelson’s Column and lions and everything so it was definitely there. Is it Paula something? It doesn’t matter. The Prime Minister was on the bus as well, slapping you on the back with a big grin on his face. And the date on the newspaper was tomorrow! What is that woman’s name? You know, the Sun’s always going on about her bum.’

The doorbell saved Shackleton from the need to formulate a non-Sun reader’s response to Morris’ rambling exegesis. The curry had arrived. With food in the offing even Morris seemed to forget that he’d spoken, enthusiastically busying himself with foil cartons and rattling through the cutlery drawer in search of clean forks. He didn’t bother with crockery. Morris was never one to stand on ceremony, unless the ceremony was taken from a book by some tanned Californian with an incandescently insincere smile, was easy to perform, and was hyperbolically guaranteed to enhance his attractiveness to women, his bank balance or his physique. He wasn’t too bothered which – in his case all those things were in urgent need of improvement.

The green curry was too much for Shackleton. Chilli scalded his tongue and made it impossible to taste the meat and vegetables. He couldn’t tell if he was eating chicken or pork, cabbage or carrot. It was always the same when Morris ordered the food. Shackleton ended up with what Morris liked, something much too hot and which tasted of nothing but puréed flame. At least Morris had stocked the fridge with a few bottles of Cobra, now nicely chilled. All Shackleton needed now was a fire extinguisher and a few skin grafts.

‘Anyway,’ said Morris through a mouthful of rice and napalm sauce. ‘I was telling you about this vision. Logically, whatever it is has got to happen before the papers go to press, right? It’s eight o’clock now, so that gives us a window of probably around eight hours in which you have to save the world. What are you going to do?’

‘Me?’ Shackleton was aghast. He hadn’t even considered that Morris’ spirit message might be the genuine article. How was he supposed to come up with a plan? He shrugged. ‘No idea. Put my underpants on outside my trousers? Turn one of your curtains into a cape? Take flying lessons? How should I know? This is nuts. It was probably just the weed, Mo.’

‘Aha!’ Morris smirked triumphantly. ‘I’ve given up smoking that stuff. I read this book a couple of weeks ago, by that Californian bloke, Deepfat Fryer or whatever he’s called, I forget. Anyway, he is anti-drugs – says they block the channels to the higher powers and are an obstruction on the path to following your bliss. And I read that women prefer a non-smoker so I stopped the fags, too. And the garlic capsules and goose-fat chest-rub.’

Shackleton was intrigued in spite of himself. ‘Did it work?’

‘Not yet,’ Morris replied, ‘but that girl in the paper shop where I buy my Lotto tickets smiled at me yesterday.’

‘She was probably hoping you’d hand over all your benefit again. What about the bliss? Is that any closer?’

‘I do feel much happier now that I’ve stopped smoking. Whenever I feel the need for a fag I have a nip of that cough medicine. I’m getting through four bottles a day. Yes, I would say I’m almost blissful. That bloke is really amazing. I’m going to try his weight-loss programme next.’

Shackleton eyed Morris doubtfully. While his friend was not strictly corpulent, that belly would take some shifting. ‘Does it involve giving up beer?’

‘Dunno – it might have to, I suppose. I’m saving up for the book from his website. It’s only sixty-five quid, plus postage from San Francisco. Or is that in dollars?’

‘Does he do a programme on improving eyesight? It might explain how those buggers can see you coming every time.’

Morris narrowed his eyes and tutted.  ‘You are so spiritually unaware, Brian. I can’t think why the higher powers have chosen you to save the world. They should have gone for someone more in tune with their transcendence.’

‘Someone like you, you mean?’

‘Well, now that you mention it, yes. But as a deeply spiritual person I’m above petty jealousy and penis envy.’

‘Mo, if penis envy exists at all it only applies to women who believe in Freudian psychoanalysis. Or are you subtly trying to tell me something about the size of your own?’

‘You know what I mean,’ said Morris sulkily.

Shackleton was saved from an awkward response once again, this time by the telephone ringing. Morris disappeared into the hall, closing the door behind him to conserve heat. Thanks to the Thai curry Shackleton was now soaked in sweat and feeling increasingly fed up. He drained the last of Morris’ Cobra.

‘That was Jean from the New Age shop,’ said Morris when he returned. ‘Wish I could remember what it’s called. She says she’s had a message from the spirits too. They told her that someone close to me was going to become globally important very soon. She said the letter B was significant. That must mean you, Brian. You know, I think she fancies me. She’s a bit of alright.’

Shackleton rolled his eyes, blinking as sweat dripped into them. He muttered an excuse and went to the bathroom. He didn’t actually need to relieve himself but was desperate to lower his trousers and underpants to get some cooling air to his parboiled genitals. As an afterthought he ran the cold tap for a couple of minutes and splashed some icy water onto the overheated parts.

When he emerged nearly ten minutes later, Morris had vanished.

The front door was open and snow was drifting into the hall, though the flakes stood no chance against Morris’ thermonuclear central heating. Shackleton quickly searched the house but Morris was nowhere to be seen. He noticed that his friend’s shoes and boots – Morris never owned more than one pair of each, asserting that too many pairs of shoes were bad for the feet, something he’d read on the internet – were still lined up neatly in the hall next to his own. Next to them was a pair of slippers and two odd socks. Then he noticed a line of footprints leading up the front garden path toward the gate. In each print the outline of five toes was clearly visible. Morris had gone out in a big hurry, barefoot.

Reluctantly, Shackleton put on his multi-layered snow outfit, put the door on the latch and trudged out into the snow, which was now falling even more heavily than when he had arrived. At first the cold was a blessed relief from Morris’ hothouse, but as Shackleton followed the footprints his body temperature fell rapidly and he began to wish he was back indoors. Heavy perspiration and a soggy crotch were surely better than freezing to death.

It was impossible. The snow was falling so heavily and so fast that Shackleton only managed to follow the trail for a couple of hundred yards, up the road and round a corner, before it vanished under fresh snowfall. He wandered around for a further ten minutes but couldn’t pick it up again, so he made his way back to Morris’ house.

An Eskimo was waiting in the hall when he opened the door. At least, that was his first thought. When the hood of the parka was thrown back and the scarf that had covered the person’s face was unwound, the Eskimo turned out to be a short, broad-featured woman with tangled mousy hair and round, wire-framed spectacles. She peered suspiciously at Shackleton – though she could have been squinting. It was hard to tell because her glasses were misted over.

‘Who are you? Where’s Toby?’

‘I’m Brian Shackleton – Toby’s friend? Well, I always call him Mo, actually.’

‘Oh, so you’re Brian. Toby’s told me all about you. He thinks you’re going to be the one who saves the world.’ She cast a critical eye over him. ‘I must say, you don’t seem the type. I’d have thought the Higher Powers would have chosen someone taller and with a bit more muscle. I’m Jean, by the way. I own Arcana, the spiritual shop on the riverside.’

Shackleton’s heart was beginning to get used to sinking. It was bad enough being labelled the saviour of the world, without his suitability constantly being called into question. But that wasn’t important. He didn’t believe he would be saving the world anytime this side of the grave, and he was worried about Mo. He quickly explained what had happened. Jean didn’t seem at all anxious.

‘He’s probably gone out for spiritually-invigorating snow bath,’ she confidently suggested. ‘That Deep Pan Pizza bloke recommends it. It’s Tibetan or something. Or is it Native American?’

No wonder Morris fancies you, thought Shackleton, immediately feeling guilty for being uncharitable. ‘Mo hates the cold. That’s why he keeps this place at a tropical temperature all year round. And he’d never go out without his socks. Mo’s got a real thing about that. Those footprints prove he wasn’t wearing any. He had them on when I arrived. Thick, thermal socks, one black and one grey. And slippers. They’re by the front door.’

‘The socks or the slippers?’

‘Both. All four. Whatever.’

‘That does sound strange,’ said Jean. ‘And I suppose if it was a snow bath he’d have taken off all his clothes.’ Her mouth twitched into a smile and her eyes seemed to gleam at the prospect of a naked Morris.

Shackleton shuddered. ‘We have to go out and look for him,’ he insisted. ‘In these conditions every second counts.’

‘Have you tried calling the police?’

‘What, and tell them to start a manhunt because my mate’s gone out with bare feet? They’d laugh at me. Besides, they’ve got it in for Morris ever since that business at the church last year.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Jean. ‘What happened?’

‘It was when he was going through his Christian phase, only two days in. God, that was a bad fortnight. Anyway, he saw his bank manager going in for the Sunday morning service. You know that bit in the New Testament about Christ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple?’

‘Yes?’

‘Good. In that case I don’t need to spell it out. But after that, when he was still on bail awaiting trial for assault and breach of the peace, he conducted a one-man demo outside the police station with a big placard with LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN CAST THE FIRST STONE written on it. Then he threw a stone through one of the windows. He said it was to make a statement, reclaim the moral high ground. He was arrested again. It was lucky for Morris that the judge was a Freemason who knew Morris from the two meetings he attended. Thought he was still a member. Christ knows who nominated him in the first place.’

‘So he got off then?’

‘Bound over to keep the peace, with a hefty fine. I loaned him the money to pay it. That was eight months ago. He still hasn’t rendered unto Caesar.’

Jean shook her head disdainfully. ‘I really don’t think it’s appropriate to be materialistic at a time like this, Brian. Alright, if the police wouldn’t be interested I suppose it’s up to us. Let’s go.’

Shackleton replaced his scarf and gloves and drew up his hood. They trudged along to the place where Morris’ footprints – now completely buried in new snow – had ended, and split up. He took the next turning on the left, Jean took the one on the right.

Conditions worsened. The temperature fell as steadily and relentlessly as the snow. The night deepened. The residential streets, now wholly treacherous underfoot, were deserted. Visibility was non-existent. Shackleton began to wonder if he had somehow become trapped inside a snow globe, the last living man in a world of ice and swirling white flakes. He wanted a hot drink and warm feet.

After an hour of fruitless searching, he was ready to give up. Then, just as he was about to head homeward and abandon Morris to his fate, he saw that he had somehow blundered his way to the High Street. Most of the shops and eateries were closed, and only a handful of hardy souls were out and about, but the Café Świata, one of his favourite coffee shops, which doubled as an all-night delicatessen for the local Polish community, many of whom worked unsocial hours, was still open for business. The staff were usually sullen but the coffee was good. Without a second thought, he opened the door and went inside. And there was Morris.

His friend sat at a table, looking rather bewildered and nursing a mug of peppermint tea. His feet, when Shackleton glanced down to check for damage, seemed unharmed – dirty and pink with warming, but otherwise fine. The waitress, a pretty but tired-looking brunette, brought a filter coffee from the counter and set it on the table. Shackleton had often encountered her. The woman seemed permanently bad-tempered.

She spoke with a heavy accent. ‘You are Brian? Good.’ She looked him up and down, and sneered. ‘He said you would want coffee, and you would be paying for him. Just as well you are here or my boss Pawel would be soon calling the police. Does he always go out with no shoes? No money is one thing – but no shoes? That is mad.’

Shackleton reluctantly checked his wallet. He had plenty of cash. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘Twelve pounds and sixteen pence.’

‘What, for a coffee and a peppermint tea?’ Shackleton was outraged.

‘No, he has had two teas and also a bacon sandwich. And a cupcake. And biscuits.’

‘But he’s only just eaten a Thai curry,’ Shackleton protested.

The waitress’ gaze was flinty. ‘Then he is a very hungry man. Twelve pounds and sixteen pence. Plus tip. Now, please.’

Shackleton handed over fifteen pounds and sat down opposite Morris. He waved a hand in front of his friend’s face. There was no reaction. Morris appeared to be in a trance. Or perhaps he’d been taking magic mushrooms. Surely he hadn’t spontaneously decided to try shamanism again? The last time his neighbours had come close to lynching him because of the incessant drumming.

‘Morris? What’s going on? Are you tripping?’

Slowly, Morris’ eyes regained focus. But his expression remained blank, his voice monotonous. ‘Brian. You’re here. It won’t be long now. The spirits say that you have to leave the café at exactly fourteen minutes to twelve and stand in the road.’

‘Why the hell should I do that?’

‘Don’t question the spirits, Brian. All will be revealed. You must do as they say. Fourteen minutes to twelve. Exactly.’

Shackleton looked at the clock behind the counter. He had six minutes. ‘At least I’ll be able to get some hot coffee inside me first. Mo, what the bloody hell is going on?’

But Morris was silent, now deeply entranced, staring sightlessly ahead at a point a thousand yards behind Shackleton’s face. Shackleton sighed. ‘Well, in that case I may as well roll a fag and have a smoke while I’m standing there like a lemon waiting for spirits I don’t believe in to tell me what to do next. Honestly, Mo – this is crazy.’ Morris’ features didn’t so much as flicker. ‘Oh,’ Shackleton added, hoping this might snap Morris out of it, ‘that woman Jean from the Arcana shop came round. She’s looking for you too. You know, I think you’re right. I reckon she does fancy you.’

Astonishingly, that too elicited no response. Shackleton grimaced and looked at the clock again. Time was almost up. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s a matter of life and death, whatever.’ The gloves, scarf and hood went back on, and he strode out into the snow, into the middle of the empty road. By the time he’d fumbled the lighter out of his trouser pocket and clumsily lit the cigarette, it was eleven minutes to twelve and nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, unless you counted the continuing blizzard. He inhaled deeply, hoping the smoke would be warmer than the surrounding air. It was a forlorn hope.

Why had he gone along with it? Morris was clearly undergoing some kind of mental collapse, perhaps even a full-scale psychosis. One should never enter an insane person’s fantasy, Shackleton knew that. It only compounded the folly, reinforced the delusion. Not for the first time that night, he wished he’d declined Morris’ invitation and stayed at home.

He stared at the café. Through the window he could see Morris sitting motionless, staring into space. The waitress was leaning on the counter, reading a tabloid magazine whose cover seemed to be given over entirely to a woman’s bikini-clad backside. On the wall beside her hung a framed photograph he’d never seen on his previous visits – a picture of the Prime Minister, caught in the act of slapping the back of a man Shackleton recognised as Pawel, the proprietor of Café Świata. Then he remembered what Pawel had once told him after a few glasses of Wyborowa, that in Polish the café’s name meant –

The horn jolted him from his reverie. He turned to see the HGV that was bearing down on him rapidly, the sound of its engine muffled by the thickly-falling snow. Desperately, Shackleton flung himself to one side, praying that would take him out of the vehicle’s path. At the same time, the driver slammed on the brakes. The lorry fishtailed on the ice below the fresh coating of snow, and Shackleton just had time to glimpse the words written on the side – TRAFALGAR HAULAGE, with a silhouette of Nelson’s Column – before the cab rammed Café Świata at speed, with umpteen tons of goods behind it. No one inside even had time to scream. The façade and interior of the café were instantly and completely destroyed. Splintered wood, broken bricks and shards of glass exploded outward, showering Shackleton. Something hit him in the chest and he reflexively grasped it. Then the two storeys above the café collapsed onto it and the front half of the lorry. The ruins caught fire.

Shackleton stood, open-mouthed and frozen to the spot. No one could have survived that. The driver, the waitress, Morris, anyone who had been at the back of the café or upstairs – they must all be dead. Stunned, he took out his mobile phone and managed to pull himself together enough to call the emergency services.

An hour later, Jean threaded her way through the police cars, fire engines and ambulances, white-faced and out of breath. ‘Bloody hell,’ she gasped, shocked. ‘I heard that streets away. Was Morris inside?’

Shackleton nodded slowly, unable to tear his gaze from the scene. ‘Yeah,’ he said, his voice quavering. ‘Mo was in there when it happened. He told me to stand in the road. And that’s why the sodding lorry crashed, to avoid hitting me.’ He pointed to something that lay on the ground by his feet, a fragment of the café’s painted front. The Americas and part of the Pacific Ocean, a crudely drawn Mercator projection, now singed and fissured. ‘Café Świata. It means World Café.’ He turned to Jean and laughed humourlessly. ‘If I hadn’t been here this would never have happened. No one would have died. Morris would still be alive.’ He held out the item he’d caught when the café exploded, slices of meat sealed in transparent plastic.

‘I couldn’t save the world. But it’s alright, Jean. Look, I saved the bacon.’

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