(by Toby Goodwin)
Sitting on the front steps of Lidl eating pastries. Flakes catching on our jumpers and floating off down Duke St. It was a rare, sunny day and we were chatting about masks. Jimmy thought it was ridiculous. Not the masks themselves, just the way folk were treating them. Letting the nose poke out, or letting the kids walk to school without having to wear them.
“I mean it wiz jist so the parents could get back tae work,” I was sayin.
Jimmy was a skinny guy. He had Buddy Holly glasses, short hair, and a brown beard that went ginger in the sun. “Aye, right enough,” he said, “but I’ve seen droves ae kids heading doon the road, no a mask in sight.” He took another bite, an apple turnover. Jimmy always had a bit of a sweet tooth. I didn’t, I had a cheesy croissant. I’d enjoyed the first couple of bites, but it was very dry.
“I mean, it’s a moot point, Jimmy. The kids aren’t high risk.” I took another bite, unimpressed. Naebody likes a dry croissant.
“Aye, I know, but the kids spread it tae the parents. Whit’s the point in having everyone inside if the kids’re gonnae spread it anyways.”
“Aye well,” I said. “Ken what they say about opinions?”
“They’re like arseholes.”
We were both in dark clothes and we had washable cotton masks on doubled elastic straps around our chins. We were halfway up the steps, looking out on a large patch of construction across the main road. Men in high-vis jackets were digging and turning cranes. Causing loud, metallic, sounds to thunder down the street. I had my backpack on the step next to me, so did Jimmy. Mine was plain black and his was this ridiculous orange colour.
“I’ve got to say, I like your new bag,” I said, suspecting that it may have been a gift from his partner.
“Oh aye, it’s lobster-orange.”
“I mean… it’s no exactly subtle though, is it?”
He frowned. Jimmy was about ages wi me, maybe a bit older – twenty-six or thereabouts. We were at the age when we tried to stop thinkin about age. “I like it,” he said.
“It’s not very practical. You’d see it a mile away.”
It looked like a satchel and it had a plasticky sheen on the outer lining. “…yer probably right,” he said, “but Chantelle wiz pleased at me taking it oot.”
“She willnae be pleased if you cannae get any work done.”
“Pff,” he took another bite of his turnover. A little bit of apple sauce dribbled out and rolled down his top. He tried to wipe it with a sleeve, but it smeared.
We said nothing for a moment, watching the construction, watching the cars. Then he turned to me and went, “Did you know that lobsters are immortal?”
“Oh aye, I wiz reading an article on Reddit. When a lobster gets auld enough it sheds its skin and then a bigger lobster crawls oot. And, the thing is, when the lobster gets too big it’ll get stuck in its ain skin and it’ll die.”
“Aye, so the article wiz sayin that, if some folk took it upon themselves to help a lobster moult every year, then it would live forever. Like, over the generations, the lobster would get bigger and bigger, always shedding its skin with the help of these people.”
I laughed, “Like a group of lobster worshippers, like a cult for an immortal lobster.”
He started laughing too, “Imagine some, fuckin, thousand-year-auld, fifty-foot super-lobster worshipped by a group ae mad shellfish fanatics.”
At that moment there was a sharp sound behind us. Incredulity’s the word; a sound of pure disdain and surprise. I looked over my shoulder to see these two middle-aged lassies by the Lidl entrance – a few steps behind us. There was a baldie, burly security guard in a fashionable, black mask holdin his arm across the sliding doorway. One of the lassies was trying to get past, but his arm was like a tree trunk.
“Nae mask, nae service,” the guy wiz sayin.
“But the fuckin vaccines oot already, get fucked,” she said. Her pal looked embarrassed. The two of them were in white strappy tops and they had blonde hair flapping about in the breeze. They were about the same height. It’s weird how groups of pals all tend to look alike. Me and Jimmy look similar anaw.
“Hen, I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules,” the security guard said.
“Let us in, we’re only after the wan thing. Fuckin dobber, man.” The lead lassie went for the door again, but the security guard didn’t budge.
“C’mon Jessie, we can go doon that corner shop,” the second lassie said. “Guy in there’s never got a mask on.”
“That’s no the point,” the first lassie barked, making her pal recoil. “Am wanting a bottle fae here.”
“Hen, it’s no happening,” the security guard said. A small queue started gathering behind them, an elderly couple in masks and a group of teenagers, also in masks.
“A’ve got a medical problem,” the first lassie said.
“If you cannae wear a mask, you can always order deliveries – or there’s the personal shopper service.”
“Fuckin arsehole.” The girl stomped her foot, turned, and then stormed off. Her pal sighed and followed. They took a right, went down the disabled access ramp behind us and continued across the car park.
“It’s no that annoying,” I said, turning back to Jimmy. “I get folk bein frustrated and that, but it’s no hard wearin a thin piece ae fabric over yer face.”’
“Ken, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Can be a bit tricky to catch your breath when it’s hot, and it clouds up ma glasses.” Jimmy took another bite. His turnover was now about the size of a coin. I’d put my dry croissant on my knees, sick ae it.
The two ladies continued across the car park. At the far end, there was a huge section of metal, temporary fencing covering a crumbling brick wall. It had presumably been put there out of fear of a collapse. The fence also blocked access to another set of stairs that were a bit of a shortcut onto the street. The lassies strolled right up, squeezed through a gap between two metal sections, and continued around the corner. The fence had been that way for months. You could make the argument that it was for safety, but it was a massive inconvenience. People constantly cut through. The gap between those two fences was widened and slightly bent from so much thoroughfare.
“That’s another thing,” Jimmy said, through a flaky mouthful. “I heard some folk dinnae want the vaccine.”
“Immoral! That’s, fuckin, immoral as fuck,” I said. “We’re aww tryin tae make the best ae this and some bastarts are jist takin the piss.”
“They might be scared ae needles.”
“Fuck that, naebody likes needles. It’s immoral, man. Putting your ain comfort before the lives of others is immoral. Doing the right thing is so uncommon these days, man. We need more ae it.”
“Thing is, I feel like our generation’s been forgotten aboot,” Jimmy popped the last morsel of apple turnover into his mouth and stood up, brushing the flakes off his legs. “We’re the wans losing our shitey bar jobs, we’re the wans who’re gonnae inherit this economy, we’re the wans with the crippling mental health problems, drug problems, porn addictions.”
“I’ve no got a porn addiction.”
“Never said you did.”
“Aye, and I don’t. Plus, it’s no like we’re goin out of business.”
Jimmy grinned, “Speakin of,” he said, and he gestured for me to follow. I stood up, tossed the rest of my croissant for the seagulls, and we walked off the same way those girls had gone. Jimmy stepped through the gap in the fence, and I did too – looking at that wall anxiously. We didn’t say anything as we continued down Duke St. There was faint nattering from pedestrians and the hum of car engines. Heavy, metallic sounds from the construction behind us. We crossed at the lights and continued east past the barbers, the takeaways, and that lovely mural at Duke’s Bar.
“Seein anyhin?” Jimmy said.
“Nah, no yet. There’ll be something.”
“Aye, we can check that alley further doon.”
We continued along through the gentle hustle and bustle. Folks in masks, a group of the elderly in a queue outside boots, a group of weans on BMX’s. Eventually, we got to the far end where the shops dissolved into tenements and the dual carriageway.
“Here, you’d better do something about that bag,” I said.
“If we’re spotted, it willnae take Einstein to guess which wanker wi the orange backpack it wiz.”
“Alright, alright.” He took it off, “Will it fit in yours?”
“Maybe,” I took mine off and unzipped the top. I moved my crowbar to the side and pulled the RF Code-Grabber out, wrapping the wires around the receiver. I shoved it in my back pocket and widened the bag’s opening.
“Aye, that’ll be fine.” He compressed the lobster as much as he could and shunted it in. It was awkward, but with some elbow grease he managed it. I put the – now bulging – bag on my back and we continued around the corner onto a flat stretch of road lined on one side by scrap land, and on the other side by tenements. The street was empty save an old BMW 8 Series, a nineties one. Glossy, white paint.
“That’ll dae,” I said and pulled the Code-Grabber out.
“Hold on,” Jimmy said, grabbing my arm, “masks.”
“Alright, alright.” I pulled my mask up over my chin and nose. I could feel the heat of my breath. I could smell that cheesy croissant on my tongue. “You keep an eye.”
Jimmy took a spot by the street corner, leaned against a lamppost, and pulled his own mask up. I strolled casually up to the car and started fiddling with the code-grabber. It was a combined walkie-talkie and a garage door control that we’d jimmied together with the help of a series of YouTube tutorials. It had a sliding knob on the side so we could check all the frequencies. I scrolled to the mid-range; German cars generally sit about there. Tried it, nothing. Scrolled again, nothing. Normally took a while, even with the older cars. Scrolling through every increment until I found the right one. After a few minutes, I got it. I hit the clicker and the brake lights flashed.
Jimmy jogged down to the driver’s side. I got in the passenger door. Jimmy was quick; he pulled a flathead screwdriver out of his pocket and removed the panel under the steering wheel. He fiddled for a minute, finding the right wires.
“Careful, these wans lock if you touch the third fuse,” I said.
“I ken, I ken.” He reached over and started rummaging around in my bag. Well, in his bag inside my bag. He pulled out a pair of plyers, skinned two wires, and started sparking them. Blue light flashing across his face. “You know, I was reading about this Facebook-Guru this morning,” he said.
“Aye, like a wise guy. He wiz sayin we should be forgiving all these immoral mask folk and the folk who don’t want the vaccine.”
“How’s that?” I was looking out the window, scanning the street. There was still naebody.
“Well, he wiz saying that we should imagine everyone’s a tree, right. Like, when you’re walking aboot a forest, some trees aren’t as well-developed cause they’re no getting as much sun. Maybe a few branches are warped, or the leaves are a bit dry.” The car sputtered and stalled. He twisted the bare wires between thumb and forefinger and tried it again. “And we don’t hate those trees, they’re jist fuckin trees, man. So, we should feel the same way about people, ae? Like those lassies outside Lidl, they’ve jist no got enough sun, ken?”
“That’s a nice thought,” I said.
The engine shuddered into life. Jimmy released the handbrake, put it into first, and revved twice. “Let’s sketch,” he said.
(As appeared in The Purple Hermit)