Literary Orphans

Collecting Debts
by Tariq Joyce

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I remember sitting in Gerry’s place thinking I wanted to be the one who found him dead. It was in an old Georgian house by the quays. People always remarked how big it was for a bedsit but truthfully there just wasn’t much furniture. It, along with the six other units in the property, were  transformed back in the seventies, and left that way since.

Gerry’s was Number One, nearest the front door. It had a large south facing window, always blaring one of two channels — daylight or nightlife. There was a terrace of built in wardrobes along one wall. They were stained dark and then gloss varnished; a combination that could blind from any angle yet absorb all hope at the same time. One was for clothes, the next was tiled inside and had a small oven with two hot spirals that glared up at the usual suspects on the shelf: Old English Mustard, Bovril, cloudy oil. The next cupboard was the sink. As with all the bedsits there, if the occupant was male it also served as a urinal. Tight in its corner, a fridge hummed in monotone to prevent itself from laughing at what the walls tried to present as ninety degrees. The divan bed had no wheels, and horizontal knife slits near the ground gaped open from it being mugged by haunted tenants in desperate searches for coins. Way up high in the center was a God awful chandelier. It was dull, pink, fake crystal: a replacement for something more glorious. The tops of the walls were crowned by a cornice that had a heavy layer of dust standing on its back, no doubt horrified by everything below. To the letting agent in this market there are four colours: pinkish magnolia, reddish magnolia, magnolia magnolia, -and like Gerry’s- dirty magnolia.

I didn’t know him well. I thought him sound but, as with all my tenants, I couldn’t allow myself to trust him. The only difference that mistrust made was stage directions. I would orchestrate each interaction in such a way that I’d never have my back to him. I was there to pick up money that was not mine. A slum lord by proxy isn’t a lord.

I did know that he was an unemployed builder, that after the economic decline his drinking increased, and I knew he came to live there because his Mrs. threw him out — he choked up when telling me.  Upon his request, I had to pick up the rent every Friday so he couldn’t drink it on the weekend. When I did, we liked to joke about the chandelier; how it made his place the fanciest boozer in Cork, and how we’d have to hide the feckin’ thing if he ever got a means test from welfare. It’s where his daughter found him; hanging from its anchor point.

The night I got the call about Gerry, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there running over our conversations wondering if I could have helped him. I didn’t get to meet meet his daughter because the landlord stepped in and helped her pack up Gerry’s stuff. No doubt he recounted that experience to his friends in the pub or outside Mass. He had only met the guy once when letting in a fire inspector. I had actual memories.

At the time I wished it had been me who discovered his remains to spare her the grief.  Also, I  wanted to find a body. The other letting agents were always finding them: ‘It was my third this year.’  and ‘Very sad, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.’ Now, I wasn’t obsessed with finding a dead body and I didn’t wish anyone harm, it’s just that it seemed to be a part of the letting agent experience that I had been missing. I had plenty of tenants who died a short while after moving out, or died in hospital. But the discovery of a body always eluded me, and left me curious as to how I would react.

So, I sat there waiting for the next potential tenant, staring at the ceiling. Out of respect, the landlord had a standard pendulum installed in place of the chandelier. Of course, the anchor point is still there.

A few tenants later, Jason moved in. He must have weighted about six stone. His lifestyle had picked him clean; leaving only bones, and large dull eyes to find more alcohol. I only rented to him because I knew his sister, Valarie. She lived in Number Two, across the hall. She had been clean for years and wanted to keep an eye on him.

He wasn’t living there long when she rang to say he hadn’t left his place in over a week and wasn’t answering his phone. I could see the key in the lock from outside in the hall. After a brief matter of fact conversation it was agreed I should kick in the door to see if he’s still alive. While I got my tool bag she hid in her room and turned up her hip hop music. Fair enough.

The hallway was grand, once. Its ceilings high, more cornice; a dignified feature that only survived because it was out of reach. The walls were held together by thick wood-chip wallpaper that when pierced, spilled white powder. Every few feet there were swatted flies, faint old spits, and sneaker smears. I learned later that those long thin strips in the drywall were from knives.There were no lampshades, each stinging solitary bulb animated its own dirty universe, unaware of the next one meters away. Who knows what colour the carpet was.

I stood there at his door, alone, and wondered how this would change my week. Would Jason be my first body? I was worried for him, yet excited for myself. You see, I’m actually the ideal candidate as I don’t have a sense of smell.

After more knocking, I poked a six inch Hilti nail into the key hole and gave it a tap. It worked. The key popped and rang metallic on the floor inside. No matter what lay ahead, at least I knew I wouldn’t have to frankenstein the door with bolts, again. I leafed through my bunch of keys until I found a number fourteen. I knew the numbers of all the locks. I still do.

When I opened the door my first thought was of Mass.

Jason had moved the bed to the center of the room. A gap at the top of the closed curtains allowed thick beams of light to stream through. Dead straight and indifferent they were bouncing back off of the bed below like sonar, revealing a shape. A congregation of beer cans: some lying, some bent, but mostly standing empty, were in groups around the bed. The light caught the rim of each, making them candles around an alter. All other details of the room apart from that were pencil sketched; closest grey, farthest black. I went in.

“Jason? Jason, are you okay?” No answer. “Jason?” I hit the light but it was an energy saving bulb and would take minutes to bloom; so, I kicked a path to the window. A thin arm raised slowly from the bed and he groaned an ‘E’ sound, which I registered as a yes. “Jesus Christ, Jason, we thought you were dead.” It was probably the first spoken sentence there in a week, and to celebrate it did a lap of honour. Everything was amplified.

“No.” he said, “I’m not dead.”

I pulled one side of the curtain open and  Jason’s blanket crept up over his head. His sheets were saturated with piss, and sweat, and –I found out later– shit. There were pools of vomit on the laminate floor: some evaporating, some trying to soak their way back up into bed with him. His Cigarettes had left sink holes and meteor streaks on the bare duvet.

“Jason, I’ll tell your sister you’re alive. I’ll be back in two days for a chat.” No point telling him he was evicted then. No point telling him he could turn things around. He was going to die, bottom line not rock bottom. I hadn’t had a drink myself in three years.

I was relieved he was alive and although I didn’t find a dead body it was a step in the right direction. Okay, maybe it was it was immaturity on my behalf; or, maybe I wanted to be a part of all the drama I was reporting at home.

I gave him the same line I always end up giving: “Look, your lifestyle is affecting everyone else’s here and that’s not fair. You have to go.”

“I’m not goin’ fuckin’ anywhere, bai.” His eyes rattled around when he spoke.

“Jason, you’re a fire hazard — sorry now.”

He threatened me, I pitied him. Following a week of protest he turned on his sister and after that he disappeared. I saw him begging on Patrick’s Bridge a few months later and he hissed at me. He’ll be survived by four children.

I had to take all of that furniture to the dump. Hygiene is one extreme or the other with damaged people. Either they never clean and let mould prosper in their place, or it’s death to every single germ in an effort to drown whatever is inside their heads. Although some, I imagine, are conditioned by bouts in prison, or a history of ‘care’.

Anne O’ Leary took Number Two when Valarie moved on. She was fastidiously clean, a compulsion that expanded beyond her flat and into the common areas. It cheered up the ground floor a great deal which made letting easier. Interestingly, she sought permission to put additional locks on her windows and doors. I found out recently from a Garda friend that she and her whole family were thieves.

A couple more rented Number One and they were fine. They usually don’t last long because of the crowd upstairs. Then a Polish man, Jacob, took it. I liked him. He arrived in Ireland with absolutely no English. But he was a tall clean-cut gentleman with a pencil mustache and was eloquent enough at charades to communicate with charm.

After being there a month, he still couldn’t afford bed linen and basic utensils. When he was out I left him some spares from my storeroom. He acknowledged the gesture by pointing and nodding sincerely. Thankfully, he left it at that.

He managed to get on the Irish welfare system immediately. That allowed him to drink a bottle of vodka a day, if he didn’t eat. To keep welfare off his back he would start a new state funded course every September.

He had a lady friend called Monica, who flew in from Poland every few months. They would tour the local towns and drink together for the duration of her stay: never more than two Fridays. Every time I met her she was wearing a new cheap looking brooch, they must have been gifts from his jewelry making course.

On one visit she brought me over an expensive looking bottle of vodka. I left it in my storeroom and it’s still there, unopened. I don’t look at it every day and think I’m great for not drinking it. It’s more that I’m impressed I forget it’s there at all.

When Jacob did a photography class he took a picture of us. He gave me a copy and hung the other on his wall. I laughed about it with a colleague, though privately I was proud that a client thought so much of me. My copy is face down now, in a drawer.

He had two strong sons that he had followed here. They rebelled by working hard and not drinking. One of them went through periods of giving up on him and then visiting again. I never met the other. Being drunk all the time and of a slim build meant that Jacob took a lot of beatings. Rolled by youngsters or after arguments with other boozers from the mother land.

Some time last year his health declined. We still sat and drank tea but his moods grew unpredictable. I didn’t ask about Monica, I figured she stopped coming. The spirits had rotted his brain; which, I guess, left real conversation more tedious than the basic phrases and nods he and I exchanged.

When he didn’t answer that day I thought that maybe he was embarrassed about spending the rent. I left it another week before deciding I’d have to gain access and see what’s going on. If he was away he might have left some money on the table. He always caught up in the past.

I opened the door and there he was, lying on the floor in his pants. He had been there a while and it was the end of summer, so it looked like a horror movie. That’s all I can say; like it wasn’t real. I stared at him for longer than I should have. I had never thought of who to call. It was too late for an ambulance, so I called the Gaurds. One of them cracked the case within five minutes:

“He was a poor auld bastard.” They took a statement and I left them with the keys.

I called the landlord and apologized that in might take a few weeks before re-renting, owing to the state of the place. Just as I was regretting the apology he said there was no need for it. That angered me, but I hung up because I started to feel a swell in my chest that I was afraid might progress into something more compromising.

I wanted to call someone else, then, but didn’t know why or what to say. So I just got in my van and drove. I drove around the city, down Patrick’s Street, right at Washington. I Followed both arms of the River Lee, which cradles The Marsh. I passed the store where I knew his son worked and kept on going off out to the Kinsale Road roundabout. Then off West for miles until I spotted a car dealership. I pulled in.

It was massive and modern. You’d feed the city on the amount of tomatoes you could grow in that glass showroom.  There was only one salesman there, a skinny guy in his fifties. He skipped up and said,

“Well, what can I do you for?”

“My family’s getting bigger so I need something with more seats.” He ran through some people carriers and I didn’t answer. Then he exploded:

“I’m such a stupid cunt. All this time I’ve the perfect fucking car for you.” Why did he swear like that?  He ran around the corner and came screeching back in a flash five seater. A nice car.

“I can’t afford that.” I said.

“Just take it for a drive. It’s beautiful. Go on.” He seemed like the kind of guy that would be good to  have a beer with.

“Why?”

“Just fucking do it. No bother.” He handed me the keys.

I drove out the gate and took the next left. Not more than a minute after, I parked by a vacant commercial unit and got out to have a smoke. I must have had about three while staring at the ditch. I wondered how many mice and rats and other little fellas were there; alive, or dead and left under that crash of grass and brambles. I drove back and he was waiting.

“Come on in, an’ we’ll talk about it.” He started walking, so I followed. When I sat in his office I realized he was the owner. The only section of wall that wasn’t glass had photos of the opening from a few years ago: minor celebrities with local major businessmen, all holding glasses of wine. “That there is the car for you, and you can have it.” For all his energy he looked tired.

“It’s too expensive.” I said.

“It’s not. It’s fine, we are going to make this work.”

“I don’t know what that means…” My voice felt flat to me. His tone was one of excitement but there were small quivers in his face, lines I couldn’t read. I looked around the glass walls and it felt like we were chimps in a zoo. Where were the visitors?

There was a minimal amount of new cars inside and plenty of used ones in the yard. There were dark empty offices too. He started to talk about finance, about special deals. Then, and I don’t why,  I stuck my tongue through my closed lips and blew hard like a monkey. He stopped talking. He cocked his head to one side, looking puzzled for a flash, and as he opened his mouth to speak again  I interrupted:

“I’m sorry, I just remembered I bought a car last week.” And I had. Why was I trying to read him when my own head was such a mess? He didn’t answer with noise; he dropped his pen on the desk and sat back. I got up to leave but stopped at the photos. I pressed my finger to a picture and said: “I know him.” I waited until my fingerprint evaporated, and then left.

I didn’t know where else to go so I ended up at the graveyard where my father’s buried. I didn’t get out of the car; he’s not really there. So, I went home with more news than the day before. When she asked me if I was okay I got that collapsing feeling inside, and right after I said ‘Fine’,  I broke down.

And resented the lot.

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Tariq Joyce has a BA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, England. He was born and raised in Cork City, and is currently living there with his lovely young family. He is giving prose fiction a go. When not clacking away he looks out of the window for amusement. He likes to laugh at how much us humans move our arms when we walk; at how grateful ladies struggle with heavy hand luggage while their husbands stride ahead towing the big case that has wheels; how young ones negotiate the downhill pavements in heels; the quarrels; and how it’s always the big guy that gives the little guy a crushing hug when they’re drunk, never the other way around.
Twitter: @TariqJoyce.

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–Art by Zak Milofsky