The Marathon of Man – a short story with a punchline

There’s only so much a redevelopment can do when the council elect not to blow the whole festering tenement block at the centre of the estate to smithereens. It had become a bit of an elephant in the proverbial room, and not just because it was grey and Goliathan. Little low-rise houses had been built up to line the streets around it, four-storey flat blocks on the corners; all in all, a friendlier architectural face to the community. Even the press had covered its goings on with a little more charity than in the past; according to the Mail, it was not merely a crack-smogged knife-shack, but home to some “brave and upstanding citizens” who knew just when to call the constabulary regarding the aforementioned crack and knives.

But because there had been no fundamental redesign so much as a pleasant tinkering around the edges, the same twists and turns of the old complex had been retained; the dank stairwells (dank in the proper, not the colloquial, sense; although there was plenty of that too), the long hallways lit by oft-flickering bulbs, the curiously sunless balconies. It wasn’t a whole new scene; it was just that now when you were legging it you went through a pretty nice terrace in the process – precisely the situation Mark found himself in as the gelatinous mass of local ne’er-do-well Steve thundered in his wake over garden fences; hot on his trail, and hot from an unprecedented level of physical exertion.

“You fucking cunt!” Steve gasped. “Where’s my fucking thirty quid? You fucking wait, you bastard!”

Mark turned around and flipped him the bird.

“Fuck off!”

“I’ll fucking catch up with you, you cunt,” taking a breather, Steve threw somebody’s garden gnome at Mark, but it failed to go any further than the next garden, where it fragmented tragicomically. “Just you wait ‘til my boys get ‘ere! You’re fucking toast, mate!”

“Keep throwing those gnomes about, you big twat,” Mark laughed, and disappeared around the corner.

Steve was severely disappointed. He had been sanctioned earlier that day for turning up to his Jobseeker’s appointment fifty minutes late (the same amount of time his bus had kept him waiting), and needed to make a serious return on the gear he’d bought a couple of days prior with money he didn’t really have: an ounce of Afghan Kush (alternate street name –  AK-47, although he refrained from referring to it as such in texts in case the authorities thought he was an arms dealer; such a violation was more probable than possible, he ruminated between bong rips, in the age of Edward Snowden). He took a look up at the new house in the garden of which he stood, and considered throwing another gnome through the French windows and having a rummage about inside. But they slid open and a pre-teen boy squared inquisitively up at him, at which he felt vaguely embarrassed; a sensation he articulated the only way he knew how.

“What the fuck you looking at?” The child did not reply. “Want some gear?”

————————————————————–

Mark had got his thirty-bag off Steve just after the dealer had reloaded his AK, and was still blazing it. The two of them went way back, knowing one another not just from the local community but the local dole queue, which lead him to figure that Steve would understand what it was like to be both between jobs and between fat zoots. And, indeed, Steve had willingly ticked him the bag, but under the proviso that the money would be paid up after a couple of days. Steve was at pains to part with thirty pounds’ worth of perfectly good product, but agreed to the tick on the basis that a dealer who speaks too loudly and proudly of his impecunities sends out a message along the lines of “I’ve got shit weed.”

Mark quite liked Steve. He was a funny guy. Funny how? Funny like a clown. He was a halfwit; a class dunce who had – quite considerably – outgrown the classroom; a village idiot who had found himself marooned in an urban environment. And he sold the best weed on the estate! Mark wasn’t scared of pot dealers; no matter how rough they might seem, he figured, so long as you give them the money the likeliest scenario ninety-nine out of a hundred times is that they’ll slip you the bag, mutter “in a bit” and then want nothing more to do with you until your next re-up. Steve, on the other hand, usually got big deals off big figures from the “underworld,” and seemed rather oblivious to any conceivable dangers that might arise from these associations. Better weed, he figured, better business. As he made a run for it, Mark was hoping and praying that Steve’s “boys” he referred to were not the same guys he got his gear from.

He’d woken up fairly late that morning, had a cup of tea with his mum and promptly been accosted by Steve on the balcony outside his flat when she’d sent him out for some milk so they could have another.

“Oi, you little fucker!”

“You what?”

“Got that thirty for me?”

“Ah fuck, mate, look; couple days’ time I’m going Peckham to work construction, cash in hand…”

“A couple of fucking days? You kidding? You got nothing on you right now?”

“Nah, mate, mum gave me a tenner for milk and that; ‘s’all I got right now and it’s not mine.”

“Don’t feel like paying instalments then?”

“I fucking told you, mate, it’s not mine, is it? I’ll pay you when I can pay you. You know I ain’t got a fucking job, ‘ave I? I’m waiting for this construction thing to come through.”

“Mate, you think I got a fucking job?”

“You’re the main man on the estate! You’re making more P than the rest of us put together.”

“Oh, what,” Steve frowned. “You think I got it easy?”

“Don’t gimme that shit. Both of us know the weed sells itself.”

“’Cept I’m outta pocket on that last fucking batch, in’t I?”

“Yeah, and I ain’t…”

“Mate, I’m fucked off. I sold you my gear; where’s my fucking money?”

“Don’t fucking tell people they can tick then if what you really mean is ‘pay me back right now.’ I warned you that I wouldn’t have the cash. This is a fucking circular argument, mate. What do you wanna do?”

“Well,” Steve paused for a second as he followed a now-irritated Mark along the balcony. “I sold you my fucking gear now I fucking need my money, don’t I? You got a tenner, that’s a start.”

“It’s my mum’s tenner, fuck off.”

“That’s it, mate, I didn’t wanna have to do this ‘cause we go way back and all, but I’m gonna give you a smack round the fucking chops,” he flailed. “You’re for it, you cunt!”

At which point Mark decided simply to make a run for it, given that Steve was very overweight and running was not part of his signature skillset. Steve had a cousin who lived in Newcastle and was also called Steve, and when he came to visit the estate he was known as Steve from the North. When Steve went to visit Steve from the North in the North, he was known as Steve from the South, but Steve from the South was less well known in the North than Steve from the North was in the South, and this made him resentful.

If only Mark could have known this on that fateful day.

————————————————————–

Mark was in the shower, taking big hits of kush from a pipe he’d bought for twenty quid the previous summer when he had a job at a kebab shop; it’d been a little while away, and he’d had to get the bus there, but for a while it had been a steady source of income. After the owner died in a mysterious yachting accident it had gone into foreclosure and subsequently been purchased by a Russian oligarch to be turned into a private massage parlour and martini emporium for him, his prostitutes and the editors of several major newspapers. It had driven that area’s property values up so sharply that now everyone who lived there owned either a football team or the Independent (although, incidentally, because of land banking only two people actually lived there.)

Anyway, there was a bang on the door and Mark’s mother yelled through;

“I’ve been smelling that bloody shit all week! Not in the house, Mark!”

“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered under his breath.

“You’d better not have just said ‘for fuck’s sake’!”

“How did she hear…? The fucking shower’s on”, he continued to mumble. “It’s not a fucking house, either…”

He got out of the shower and was heading to his room when his mum accosted him once more.

“Bloody phone’s been going for you ever since you got back.”

“Who is it?”

“Some fella called Steve.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”

“Maybe fellas called Steve? Who the fuck is Steve?”

“Ah, just some twat.”

“Is that the porky lad?”

“Yeah, that’s the twat.”

“’E sells you that gear, don’t ‘e? ‘S’e got my tenner, then?”

“He don’t sell me no gear, ‘ere’s your tenner,” he pulled it out of the pocket of his crumpled jeans and slapped it into her palm defiantly.

“Well, alright, where’s me fucking milk, then? I want a bleeding cuppa. I might as well just give this back to you and pack you back out.”

“Oh give it a rest, mum,” he said.

“What, you don’t want a cuppa? You’re fucking mental, you are.”

The phone rang.

“For fuck’s sake,” Mark spat.

“It’ll be that Steve geezer again. Tell him to fuck off!”

“Alright?” Mark picked up the phone.

“Ooh, this is Mark, yeah?” they sounded excited.

“Yeah, this is Mark, who’s this?”

“Oh, yer probably seen me round t’way,” he didn’t really sound like he was from round Mark’s way, “it’s, uh, proper nice to have a chat again, Mark, ya MASSIVE…PONCY…FOOKIN’…CUNT!”

“Fuck off, who the fuck do you think you are?”

“Tell that fucking hog roast ‘e can stick the prime minister’s Johnson down his throat,” Mark’s mum advised, noting the distress on his face and assuming it was local Steve, rather than…

“I’m Steve from the North! Listen ‘ere, ya southern poof, me wee cousin’ tells me ye’ve been diddling about wi’ his fookin’ finances, reet scallywag bastard that you are.”

“’Wee’? Nothing ‘wee’ about that lying, fat sack of fuck.”

“Wye aye man, you’re making me gan fookin’ micey! Y’all nee talk that fookin’ jive about me rellies, and ‘specially nee our Steve; ‘e’s a beautiful lad, ‘e is, beautiful in heart, beautiful in soul. ‘E’s a gentle flower who should be shielded from t’ slings and arrows of t’ outrageous fortune.”

“Yeah, what the fuck you gonna do about it, you cunt?”

“Howay! Ya can fook reet off with ya cuntybollocks. I come down from north couple days back t’ flog some fookin’ Sunderland sniff to me Russian oligarch marras, now I’m on t’ way round ya gaff wi’ me underworld connections and me dental torture equipment,” he became distracted. “Wye aye, Blowtorch Bob, you’re gonna set your barnet on fire, mate! This is t’fookin’ terrace, I told yez…”

Mark threw down the phone.

“Who was that, then?” his mum asked. “Some Jamaican fella?”

“I need to get dressed, mum,” Mark was shitting himself.

“You going out?” she called after him as he ran to his room. “About bloody time you got the milk!”

————————————————————–

Mark returned, dressed, to find the kitchen full of the most frightening men he had ever met, whom his mother had apparently welcomed in with open arms. The kettle spurted to boiling point.

“I’d ‘ave some proper cuppas for you gentlemen if only we ‘ad milk in the fridge, but as it goes I hope you don’t mind your tea black. I blame me boy, if I’m honest.”

“Nee, Mrs Arthurs, I love me tea black,” said Steve from the North, whom Mark noticed he did in fact recognise from round the way and, furthermore, had always thought was significantly cooler than his Southern cousin. “A real man’s drink. The colour of coal. None of this fookin’ Southern mamby pamby bourgeois pansy nancy boy milk shit.” Steve noticed that Mark had walked into the room. “Reet, how ‘bout we all relax and let things get a wee bit Marathon Man in ‘ere?”

“Ooh, time for the dental torture, is it?” Mark’s mum asked.

“Afraid so, Mrs Arthurs,” explained Steve. “Gotta be done. Code of honour and all that.”

“Ooh, alright then.”

“Mum?”

“You ‘eard this gentleman!” she admonished him. “It’s the code of honour, innit! That’s United Nations! Better get on with it, son!”

“There comes a time in yer life, son,” Steve told him. “When ya just gotta sit down and take yer dental torture like a man.”

“Oh, alright then,” Mark echoed his mother’s words resignedly. “I mean…”

…THE PUNCHLINE…

                “…having each of my teeth forcibly removed with blunt instruments and a blowtorch and then individually superglued back into place would still be a walk in the park after five and a half years of Conservative rule.”

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