Second Place in the Telegraph Short Story Club 2013.
Second Place in the Writer’s Bureau Short Story Competition 2014
Longlisted for The Fish Short Story Competition 2013
Note: This story contains some swearing but we feel that it is acceptable and realistic within the context of the piece.
I never did find out his real name or where he was from when they finally took him away for good. I used to tell you about his antics all the time but you were only ever half listening. You’d crossed over to the other side by then, to that dark place where I could never reach you.
Terry Taliban I called him, but never to the others. I can see them now, Jonathan stroking his goatee, an eyebrow raised.
“Not everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist or in the Taliban you know Donna.”
Terry wore a skull cap and a fireman style wax jacket which struck me as very wrong. If there was anyone who needed rescuing it was Terry. He had a long black beard and, if you dared to look closely, there was a strong jaw and pleasant face beneath it. Those demonic brown black eyes would have sent anyone running though. So would the sight of his feet. When he took off his Crocs you could see them below the filthy grey tracksuit bottoms, all cracked and swollen and bleeding like they’d been blown up. In my mind Terry was always Afghani or Iraqi. He had to have suffered mightily to be that disturbed.
He’d be waiting on the bench outside when we opened at nine and, apart from a quick visit to the bins behind the deli across the road for lunch, he stayed until closing time. He mapped out his territory early on, standing next to the radiator by the travel section, never acknowledging anyone and never sitting down, which may have accounted for the feet.
Like you he started the day with The Times but he didn’t skip to the financial pages, he read it from cover to cover, sport included. Unlike you he didn’t have it placed in front of him by a perfumed secretary with a plate of fresh croissants and a steaming hot cappuccino.
After The Times he would start on a book, sometimes getting through two in a day. He liked history, autobiography, travel, politics and, evidently keen to fill his head with important stuff, he never touched fiction. He really was reading too, not pretending to like a lot of the other lost souls who wander in off the streets and make our jobs so difficult. Oh I know we’ve always been the natural home of the dispossessed but recently it’s been getting beyond a joke. There’s an incident almost every day. We trained as librarians not bloody social workers. And if they close us down like they’re threatening to? Where will the poor buggers go then, with mental health services being slashed and charities going under?
“Terry Taliban is the most well read man in Manchester,” I said to you one evening as I was getting changed out of my work clothes. “I bet he could win Millionaire. I might ask him if he wants to apply.”
You lifted your head from the pillow, looked at me like I was the one who was half mad, then dropped it back down again like it was made of stone.
Terry first kicked off the day after you arrived home with your bombshell about the receivers.
“We’re fucked. There’s nothing more I can do,” you said.
You were sitting at the breakfast bar with your hands on your head. You were wearing the Boss pin striped suit we’d bought together on a weekend break to London after you landed the universities contract. I bought a Karen Millen dress. Neither of us had a clue what designer was then.
I wrapped my arms around your neck.
“When are you going to tell the others?”
The look of raw pain in your eyes kept me awake all that night.
The next morning I was arranging a new crime display near the front entrance when a toddler started wailing in his buggy. It was parked that bit too close to Terry’s territory for comfort and he exploded, his voice reverberating around the room like a deafening bell.
“Shut up. This is fucking public place. Want quiet.”
It was the first time I’d heard him speak. His voice was deep and thunderous which surprised me from one so skinny. The others froze behind the front desk. Our line manager Margaret had gone out to a meeting so I took it upon myself to deal with the situation. I went over to comfort the mother who was manoeuvring the buggy towards the exit in tears. The child was making even more noise by then. So was Terry. He was effing and blinding and pacing up and down.
I approached him, surprised at the fury in my voice.
“No, No, No. You do NOT talk to children like that in here.”
He bolted towards the CD shelves hugging Tony Blair’s “A Journey.”
“No noise, no fucking noise,” he yelled. “Not here. No fucking noise.”
I marched up to him and he fled to the children’s section where a boy of about six or seven was being home schooled at a corner table. As Terry approached, the boy started to smack his hands against the side of his head and moan. His mother shielded his body with hers and I erupted again.
“No. NOT the children. You’re disturbing the children and you are going to have to leave.”
Ten minutes later when the police arrived Terry was back by his radiator engrossed in his book as if nothing had happened. As they led him away he glanced over at me.
“Fucking pig,” he muttered.
The others went on with their work behind a hedge of silence but later that afternoon Margaret called me into her office. I’ve always liked her even though I could tell you didn’t. She never judged me because I wear makeup and smart suits and don’t have an English degree, because I wear heels not Birkenstocks and read James Patterson not James Joyce.
“Maybe we could have dealt with the incident in a less inflammatory way hun?”
She stirred her coffee and the end of her sentences tilted upwards.
“You seem a little stressed with everything that’s going on with Ed. Why don’t you take a short break, get away for a couple of days, just the two of you?”
I shrank inside. The thought of being on a city break with you for three days sent a cold shiver through me.
“Sorry,” I said, weepy at her kindness. “I didn’t sleep last night and I just flipped. I’ll be fine. Honest. I think I need to keep busy.”
As I was leaving I turned to her.
“You can never be sure with people like that Margaret. You can never be sure what they might do if they snap.”
“Yes I am aware he’s a potential problem. I’ll contact social services. It looks like he might have slipped through the net.”
She never did though because Terry was back in his usual spot the next morning.
I learned a few things about him from the borrowers. He’d been banned from a number of shops in the precinct for stealing food, he slept in the smokers’ shelter outside the Irish Club and after the cuts forced us to close on Wednesdays he could be found in the large print section of the Stretford branch.
I began to wonder about his life, imagining him as a boy playing football in a dusty street under a blazing sky. I saw him sitting cross-legged on a rug with his family devouring rice from bowls with his hands and I imagined him with a swarm of siblings following his mother around a noisy market place. I wondered about his family. Did he have a wife and children somewhere who still think of him every hour of every day as I think of you? Or were they lost somewhere along the way, to American or British bombs perhaps? Maybe he was a dissenter fleeing persecution from his own people. His appetite for books suggested he was an educated man, possibly a doctor or an engineer, someone who read the Afghanistan Times. Who knows? But one thing I do know is that he must have seen horror on a scale I could never imagine: death, rape and torture, things that could shatter a once fine mind into pieces.
The second time it happened I should have seen it coming. A large lady with a frizz of henna coloured hair had pulled up a chair perilously close to him and was reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Albania. I watched from behind the desk, my heart tightening.
First he made a low ticking sound.
She looked up.
“Fuck off. You have home.” he bellowed. “Go read at home bitch. Fucking bitch.”
He moved towards her and hissed into her face, spittle flying from his lips like a lawn sprinkler. “Go home bitch.”
I let one of the others deal with him this time and the next thing I knew he was flying out of the front door with The History of the Luftwaffe under one arm.
When I got home that night you were lying on the sofa watching the news.
“Budge up.” I said, squeezing next to you. For once I didn’t comment when you topped up your tumbler from the bottle of Jack Daniels. Things were pretty bad by then. We’d initially remortgaged to set up the business and we were in danger of losing the house.
I turned up the volume. David Cameron was talking about the cuts then he started on about The Big Society. I hadn’t a clue what he was going on about and I don’t think he had either.
I sipped from your glass.
“It’s not just us you know,” I said with one eye on Vince Cable. “Businesses are going down the pan everywhere you look.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better.”
I inched away and folded my arms.
“No. But there are people a lot worse off than us out there Ed and it’s about time you stopped fucking wallowing in it.’
You slammed the glass on the marble coffee table.
“Well we’ll see who’s fucking wallowing in it when you don’t have a roof over your head.”
You moved your face close to mine.
“But I suppose you can always bed down with your mate Terry Taliban outside the Irish Club.”
I got up and left. You always were an angry drunk but most of the time you kept it under control. Most of the time you were funny, kind and a joy to be around.
In the months afterwards things started to take a turn for the better. We got a good mortgage deal and managed to hold on to the house; you were applying for jobs and things between us improved. We started socialising again and sex was back on the agenda. I thought we were back on track.
Then it happened.
I came back to work ten days afterwards. It was too soon really, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I wandered around like a bomb victim, wounded, lost and angry that you could have abandoned me like that.
Terry was in his usual place. The others said he’d been as good as gold in my absence but a few days later he was up to his usual tricks. This time he went for Roy, one of the regulars with Parkinson’s, who’d asked him politely to stop muttering. Margaret was straight over this time, circling him like a bird of prey until the police arrived.
I watched, a surge of admiration rising up inside me as he argued, resisted and refused to budge until they finally handcuffed him. I wanted to applaud and cheer. Terry had nothing in this world except a stubborn sense of survival, a dogged determination to carry on.
Unlike you, who’d had so much more to live for but had given up so easily.
Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
This is a deceptive story, seeming at first quite simple, but gradually revealing layers of pain, suffering and pathos that make this a very moving read. The characterisation is nuanced and deliberately underplayed, the setting and drama authentic and well pitched, and the unexpected ending is subdued yet shocking.
What I like is the way that this narrative focuses on the character of Terry Taliban and his prickly and anti-social behaviour in the library but the real story isn’t the problems caused by the angry and disruptive refugee but off stage in the deteriorating home-life and marriage of the narrator. The way the two are counterpointed is very professionally handled, and the foreshadowing in the intro of the final tragedy is masterly.
One thing I would mention is that I’m normally against swearing in stories, but on this occasion I feel it is permissible. The only way that Terry can vocalize his anger, hurt and resentment against the world. It explains who he is, what he’d been through, how he feels.
Often writers use swearing to shock or attempt to give their story some sort of “street cred” or make their characters seem hip or cool, but here the four letter words aren’t used gratuitously.