He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster
Let him in constancy follow the Master…
(Noalsy the Bailiff)
Like a lot of paranoid kids I invented my own superstitions, so as to be bound by them. Mostly quite arbitrary and to do with things like holding your breath while crossing between two Belisha beacons and not blinking till the white dot on the telly disappeared. Get ready press the off switch and stare the bleeder right out. If anyone disrupted those customs I’d feel off-key all day.
I never had any time for things like broken mirrors and cracks in the pavement. I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s. Know who said that?
I struck my bargain with the cosmos and kept to it. Who knows if it spared me any bad luck I mean I’ve had my share but who’s to say it wouldn’t be worse? I didn’t welsh on the deal so my conscience is clear. That’s the point. Constancy. All the great warrior codes converge there.
Also, never scoff at a seagull. He’ll remember it long after you’ve forgotten.
People tend to regard me as a severe sort of bloke, the sort who doesn’t take any shit even though I will and do put up with a hell of a lot but I just say when it comes to the crunch you might as well go for the fucking neck or what’s the point?
Believe it or not I don’t particularly like damaging people. Honest. Rather let them off half the time. But keeping up a profile’s key and you forget that in my game and you won’t stick around long.
I was sat in Mabel Morton churchyard, scribbling down names and surrounded by countless examples of that rule. Two teenagers came marching past the front gate and stopped dead looking right through at me frozen mid-stride like twin swastikas. Belts mid-thigh, the look, the walk. OK black then. Close enough to see me looking but too far to see I couldn’t care less. They craned like Meer cats, rattled by a guy in a suit and Crombie among the graves writing in a notebook and looking at them.
They kept looking and looking and I had no beef so I shouted ‘I’m not a cop!’ sending them bolting for the cover of the wall. I shook my head. Returned to my notes, but the concentration had bolted too.
Halfway down on my left was an identical iron gate and sure enough just as I looked up again two heads popped round the gatepost one above the other. Bless.
I cared not to guess at what pangs compelled this misguided orbit round my person. Their assumptions were pretty irksome considering what I’ve said already about upholding a profile.
Anyway a hollow grinding noise behind me cut that endearing caper short as they finally fled to I don’t doubt larger and bolder transgressions while I turned to see the lid of a granite tomb slide back and a pale head pop halfway up over the edge like one of those Chads you used to see graffitied everywhere. Wot no rest for the damned…
‘Oh hello Rebrand’ I said as he lit a cancer stick. Only bloke I knew who could make such an act seem life-affirming. A tub of whelks looked spry and ruddy next to him.
Mike Rebrand was a living charm bracelet without the bracelet. A scattered array of wiles and promises with no baseline to join it all together. Pretty low on charm as well come to that.
He vowed never to earn a single honest penny and stuck to it piously. At times his illusory career brought riches and comforts but from the looks of it he was between such times.
‘Morning Noalsy’ he said, perky as ever.
I said ‘Nice digs. Comfy?’
‘Oh, you know. Veins turn to ice in the hour of the wolf, sickle moon smiles down like the glint on the reaper’s blade. Rats shriek in mockery. Ambience like that you can’t buy.’
‘If you say so. Much on today?’
‘Lunch in Claridge’s.’
‘Oh, nice. What, looking like that?’
‘No. Lend me your coat.’
‘Just five minutes. For a sketch.’
I was torn with curiosity. Briefly.
He glanced around scanning for alternatives which looked to be thin on the ground: a few crows, a skip full of old mattresses and a decrepit dosser snoring on a bench.
‘OK, lend me two quid.’
‘I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.’
That seemed a reasonable stake to see him conjure up a smart appearance from the inside of a grave so I fished out a nugget and flipped it over.
‘Ten minutes’ he said, jumping up and striding smartly past me, ever the man of affairs. ‘It’d be quicker if you’d just lend me your coat. And cheaper…’
He walked out the gate over the road into an off license. It was about quarter to nine. A couple of cars slumbered past on empty and most of the street was still pressing snooze and rolling over resentfully. Not the shopkeeper though, bird-eyed and keen as sciatica as Rebrand stepped in in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts and an army blanket thrown over the lot trailing wintry fog like dry ice.
Seconds later he was striding back this way with two cans of White Ace and an uncontagious smile. If his plan was to get me on a budget-cider session and so win me round to further acts of largesse he’d have been better off chucking that pound in a wishing well.
But he strode right on past me again and kept on going. Up to the snoring dosser who he proceeded to kick several times on the sole of his foot till he woke, painfully and not at all prettily.
Up sat the tramp round-eyed in morning wonder and you could just hear the racks and thumbscrews grinding away in his wintry joints the poor cunt. A short negotiation and Rebrand stood hauling the fella’s coat on whose loan for the remaining seven of the ten boasted minutes he’d secured for a can of cider. A frayed trench coat with a greasy collar. An improvement certainly but it hardly said Claridge’s.
‘Stage two’ he announced as he buttoned it up, right to the top pulling the collar across. He made once more for the road and the shops which were all now open though empty but for one or two wisps and husks of jaded bleary-eyed retail staff slumped behind counters or pottering resentfully about the floors.
As Rebrand embarked on the next phase of his operation I looked at that poor old sod. Already freezing and guzzling down the cider for warmth as much as anything. I picked up the blanket and chucked it over to him. He barely noticed, eyes locked on the second can of cider in my other hand which I’d somehow agreed to hold as surety to guarantee the return of his coat inside the agreed time.
When I looked back the way Rebrand had gone he was in the Sally Army. Browsing books with all the time in the world. He wandered over to the clothing racks and started selecting various garments one after another, holding them up to his body by the hangars with his back to the woman throughout. His hand went into his pocket and the shop phone rang and as the old lady behind the counter turned to answer it he headed for the dressing room. I looked at my watch.
‘Two minutes’ I said, feeling the dosser’s hungry eyes on me.
With just seventeen seconds to go Rebrand emerged from the dressing rooms arms full of jumble which he dumped in a pile on the counter. His Hawaiian shirt and shorts in amongst it. Trench coat buttoned up like before. He said something to the old lady and strutted out like a seagull on the prom as she glared in pure whitewater wrath at his retreating back and the heap of de-hangered clothes in her midst, back and forth. She began re-hangering them: serene in her silent vitriol.
And what a change had come over Rebrand now as he strode victorious between the graves. Flashing the trench coat open – grotesquely – to reveal a double-breasted cashmere suit of yesteryear. Stuffy, but well cared for. Probably worn a handful of special occasions over a lifetime.
Complementing the ensemble was a white linen shirt and silk tie. A new man. He started plastering his hair down with spit.
‘Nice threads’ I said as he tugged at the cuffs. ‘Wonder who died in them.’
‘Their loss is my gain’ he replied. How a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar. Without looking at the tramp he tossed the trench coat back at him like he expected him to catch it and hang it up with a deferential bow.
‘You could’ve kept yr own togs, she wasn’t even looking till you woke her up,’ the dosser piped up. Irish fella. Rebrand turned to him with a look reserved for the wretched of the earth.
‘Steal from a charity shop?’ he spat. He fixed the dosser with his mariner’s eye, till the dosser looked down. Then he turned back to me.
‘Right. Breakfast. Think I’ve earned it.’ He made a grab for the cider.
‘Sorry mate, you were half a minute over. This is his’ I said, nodding at the tramp back in his coat now but still shivering.
‘Aaah, he can keep the blanket instead’ said Rebrand turning round again. ‘You can keep the blanket mate. I won’t need it tonight.’ The tramp’s face was transfixed with fear and rage, more alive than he’d looked all morning.
‘Bollocks’ I said chucking the can over to him. ‘You don’t welsh on a deal.’
‘Hm. Your pound’ smirked Rebrand preening away. Buoyed up by his morning’s success and not thinking about what he was saying. Big mistake.
Thoroughly engrossed in scraping dirt out of his fingernails with the hem of a sleeve he looked up all too bloody late to see me getting up and walking over to grab him up by one ankle and one wrist and dump him bodily back in the yawning vault he’d so recently exited sliding the lid shut on a do-re-me from rage to despair and back again.
Lend, he said.
‘Oi. How’d you like another six of those?’ I said to the tramp. Speechless he gave me a look of almost religious skepticism.
I fished out a fiver. ‘Really’ I said ‘just sit on here and don’t get off it till you’ve drunk them, right?’
A beam of clear understanding parted the clouds of his face as he shuffled over and bounded onto the slab clutching his newly-acquired blanket. How a man’s fortunes may swoop and soar across the face of time.
When he was good and ensconced I went to the off license and bought two packs of four cans which believe me was worth it just for the look on his face.
‘Feel free to have a kip there when you’ve finished’ I said which was a pretty safe bet looking at him – stretched out full length propped up on one elbow with the blanket round him. He snapped the ringpull on his third can that morning and looked up at me with this cherubic expression of docile innocence all over his scoured and blasted face. Tendrils of fog settled over him like lamb’s wool.
There’d be one less for lunch at Claridge’s today.
It looked like Rebrand was actually telling the truth about that, anyway. The last thing I heard was him frantically making calls from beyond the grave. But Mayfair’s loss was the gain of the dosser and the dead.
About the author:
Jim Matthews has been numerous things in his time (such as a soldier and a graffiti artist); none of which particularly seem to add up. When he has to, he works. It can be anything. The first publisher for his novel REBRAND announced their dissolution 6 months after contract was signed – leaving poor REBRAND out in the cold. So if you are, or know, a publisher, please look deep into the eyes of this plucky little book, which has been through so much already, and think about giving REBRAND a home this Christmas time. A REBRAND appeal from the bottom of our hearts. REBRAND.