by Richard Hillesley

A train rattles over the Bridges. A sparrow nests in a crack in a wall between the high old grey old bridges and the public lavatory, which has an open gutter with a red brick surround. The posters look absurd, patches of blue sky and massive letters superimposed on a landscape of asymmetric desolation. Two lads are coming down the street, playing the blues.

– Shillin’, lad?

one says. He grabs me by the sleeve, unshaven, standing on the step, a dirt streak on his brow. He is small and lean. A bottle hangs out of his pocket, a beat up guitar and a trilby hat.

– A haven’t any.

   He doesn’t give up that easy.

– Haway, lad. Forra cuppa tea.

I pull away.

-Na.

   String and bone fingers on my arm, my elbow in a clamp.

– Slept rough, an’ a was mugged.

– Mugged?

– Aye. See this.

   He bends down to show me a lump on his head.

– Feel that . . .

– . . . an’ Spit was nearly killed.

   He pulls Spit into the picture. Spit has three layers of coat on his upper body and a rag wrapped around his wrist. He is unsteady and out of focus.

– Na.

– Show ‘im, Spit.

   I give him a few quid. It’s all I have. He’s still holding me, and he’s holding Spit who looks like he’d fall over otherwise.

– Show ‘im, Spit.

– Na.

– Prove a dinnat tell lies.

   Spit unties the rag, shows a black clotted gash.

– That’s terrible,

I say,

– it’ll get worse with that on it. Get it to a hospital.

– Na,

he says,

– a kna doctors, an’ a dinnat trust them.

   His marra grabs me by the sleeve.

– Yis have a tab, lad?

– Not that a can spare.

– Haway man?

– Hey man, what yis like?

– Gis another one for the lad,

he says,

– An’ we’ll play yis a song.

   You can smell the smoke and the drink on his breath, but he does a perfect Huddie Ledbetter and plays the blues just like the records. He sings every hiss and pop and scratch in perfect syncopation with the 78s and throws his voice like he’s playing three streets away or at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, stopping every few bars to lift the bottle to his lips.

   Everybody’s gonna eat my dust

he sings,

   And I ain’t gonna make a fuss

   And Spit plays along. He howls and blows on the mouth harp in his bandaged hand, just like Jazz Gillum, and follows the wind down the street, smoking and drinking and wailing into the cold bright air, the crochets and quavers doing splits and pirouettes through the crumbling arc of a Jarrow sunset.

   The town and the yards subside. The broken ships and cranes collide with the falling sun. A gull slides through the wind, rocks and wheels and rows. All the works of man are temporary or else unreal.

   They stop to light a cigarette.

   All you little people take your hats off to me

he sings,

   Because I’m a ragtime millionaire.

Richard Hillesley is a freelance writer and editor who has published features, stories and poems in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, most recently Prole, Storgy, Cafelit and The Angry Manifesto. He is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine and feature writer for The H

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