By Mary Darroch
My first thought was that he was lying. No one could possibly be wearing those teeth unless it was for a joke.
‘Aye right, Mick! Ye got them at Tam’s Joke Shop, didn’t ye?’
He pulled his mask back up quick-like before I could reach the teeth to give them a pull just to check.
‘Naw, Ah didnae!’ He was doing that annoying laugh that sounds like a donkey hee-hawing. ‘Ah telt ye, ma dentist gave me them! He said he would put them through on the NHS so Ah wouldnae need tae pay, so there ye go! No’ too bad, are they?’
He was obviously dead pleased with them and I wasn’t about to burst his bubble. He didn’t get many moments of joy in his life and he was my pal and I wanted nice things to happen to him. Actually, what I really wanted was for him to lay off the gear a bit and maybe get a job and make something of himself. Not much chance of that, right enough, but never say die, as my Da used to say.
‘Yeah, they’re aw right, Mick.’ From the movement behind his mask I could tell that his wee capuchin monkey face was cracking a toothy grin. It never took much. He was the happiest person I knew and he was always the same, whenever you met him, except for those bad times when he was heavy using again, because then he would look a bit out of it but in the main he was always just ma mate Mick, always grinning and always looking on the bright side.
‘Anyway, Shona, how ye doin’, pal?’ As usual, he didn’t wait for an answer but instead battered right on to talk about himself. ‘Did Ah tell you Ah’m gettin’ a job on the buses?’
‘Aye right, Mick, yer at the wind-up again, aren’t ye?’ ‘Naw, Ah’m no’! Whit makes ye think that?’
‘Cos Ah know ye, Mick! You an’ yer daft stories! Mind that time ye were gonnae open a magic shop and that was all ye talked about for weeks then the next thing ye’re training to be a stand-up comedian? There’s no livin’ wi’ ye when ye get one o’ they mad ideas intae yer heid!’
‘Oh, ye of little faith!’’ he asseverated in a ridiculous sepulchral tone. I knew he was channeling Mr Micawber right there. It was a perennial favourite because Mick, for all his shortcomings, was surprisingly well-read. ‘I kid ye not! Just you wait an’ see.’ He gestured with a dramatic flourish towards his chest. ‘Yer man here has not yet reached his prime!’
More Big Ideas on the way, then. He must have noticed my eye-roll of exasperation because he dropped his voice to a more conspiratorial pitch. ‘Ah’ve got an interview themorra morning! Jist a preliminary assessment, like …’ (Words of four and five syllables were his stock-in-trade, even the times when he was a bit wasted.)
He reached inside his hoodie and brought out a dog-eared, folded-up bit of paper. ‘An’ there’s the letter tellin’ me where to go an’ whit time an’ that.’
It was from the Jobcentre and all the details were there, right enough.
‘That’s brilliant, Mick! Ah’m so chuffed for ye! But … whit ye gonnae wear?
Have ye got a better pair of trackies or something?’
‘Trackies? You’ve got tae be kiddin’ me! Ah cannae turn up for an interview in ma trackies!’ He looked genuinely affronted at the idea. ‘Actually, Shona, I was kinda hopin’ like, that ye’d come tae the shoppin’ centre wi’ us an’ see aboot gettin’ us some new strides, an’ mibbe a jaiket an’ that.’
Strides. I wondered where this latest acquisition to his vocabulary had come from but I knew what he meant.
‘But, Mick … Ah’ve no’ got any money right now. And neither have you. It’s no’ yer pay day.’
‘Money? Ach, we don’t need money, Shona! Have you forgot aboot oor special skill set?’
On the bus over to the shopping centre, I was aware that Mick was buttering me up. This could only mean one thing, that he was planning for me to do the dirty work today while he kept edgy. More often than not these days he got to keep edgy. Maybe that was his special skill set. Well, play to your strengths – that was another thing my Da used to say.
‘Aw, it’ll be great, Shona! Jis’ think, Ah’ll be able to take you on a wee bus run tae Saltcoats! Ye like Saltcoats, don’t ye?’
‘Mick, this job – is it like coach trips an’ that? No’ jist the buses intae the toon?’
‘Aye! It’s coaches, an’ they dae trips tae the seaside – Saltcoats, an’ … Ah cannae remember whit aw they place names are at the seaside but you know the kin’ a thing. Beaches an’ that.’
‘Oh, Mick, that sounds magic! Ah really hope ye get it!’
‘Aye so dae ah. Ah’m gettin’ a bit fed up wi’ goin’ naewhere except the park, stoatin’ around the place wi’ the auld coffin-dodgers and their designer dugs. It’ll be great to see somewhere new, won’t it? Jist think – all they wide open spaces where we can take in the fresh air …’
The rest of the bus journey was spent in quiet reflection – Mick breathing deeply through his blue mask and his ridiculous teeth as he practised taking in the fresh air while sounding like an emphysemic old coffin-dodger himself and me, looking out the filthy bus window on to the dismal grey streets and imagining blue skies and sparkling water and eating ice cream on the promenade.
Debenham’s wasn’t there. Debenham’s – our favourite place to pick up a few luxury items – not there. Gone. This was a disaster.
‘Aw naw man, what’re we gonnae dae?’ Poor Mick looked uncharacteristically downhearted. I thought he might start greetin’ in a minute.
‘’Well, there’s Next, an’ H&M, and there’s TK Maxx and maybe Tesco would be worth a go …’
‘But they’re all CCTV-ed up tae the gills! An’ the security guys there are total wideos, man! Huckle ye as soon as look at ye! We huvnae a hope in hell!’ His despair was making his voice sound loud and screechy and he was starting to draw looks of suspicion and contempt from passing shoppers.
‘Mick, just shut it, will ye! Stop actin’ like a wean. Where’s yer fightin’ spirit, eh? We’re no’ beat yet!’ I said these words to pacify Mick but inside I was panicking, too. Mick absolutely had to have decent clothes for his interview or he wouldn’t get that job and I wouldn’t get to the seaside.
But it wasn’t just about me. In some strange way I felt responsible for Mick and for everything that happened to him. He was the closest thing I had to family now and despite all his own problems with the smack and the relentless stream of Big Ideas, I knew that Mick was always looking out for me, too.
I looked around in the hope of seeing something that could help us. Anything. I started walking and Mick followed, neither of us knowing where we were going, really.
‘Over here, Mick.’
Up ahead, almost at Tesco, I saw our way out of this mess. Cash Converters. I touched the small diamond at my neck. It would only be for a wee while.
Mick stopped. He saw where I was heading. ‘Naw, Shona, no’ the necklace.
You love that necklace. Ah’m no’ lettin’ ye dae that.’
‘Aye well, try stoppin’ me! You need that money, an’… ye’re like a wee brother tae me, Mick, an’ this came from ma Da, so in a way it’s yours, too.
Anyway, Ah’ll buy it back as soon as ma ESA comes in!’
Mick was torn, I could see that, but in the end the thought of new strides and jaiket won the day. He helped me take off the necklace and even gave it a wee shine and polish with the sleeve of his grimy grey hoodie.
‘Shona,’ he announced, handing the necklace to me with a flourish, ‘my dear friend, I am deeply grateful to you for what you are doing as I know how much …’
‘Aw, just give it a rest, Mick, will ye?’ I tried to sound irritated but couldn’t help smiling at his somewhat mannered attempt at sounding grateful.
A guy with owlish specs and a tiny light clipped to his forehead was offering us quite a lot of cash, more than I had expected, to be honest. Apparently, it was a quality South African diamond set in 22 carat gold. I nodded and tried to look nonchalant as he dictated the details to his colleague who noted it all down.
‘I can give you a good price on this.’
Relief. I looked at Mick. He was going to get his new togs and I was going straight from here to Tesco to buy a bucket and spade for the seaside.
‘First, I need some details. Do you have some ID?’ ‘Some ..?’
‘Passport? Driver’s licence? We need to see some ID before we can make you an offer. Fraud Initiative and all that.’
‘Um …well, actually …’ I knew there was nothing much in my tiny backpack apart from my fags, my purse and my Rimmel Highland Mist lippy. I didn’t own a passport or a driver’s licence – never had a need for either. I looked at Mick. He was just standing there, staring straight ahead. ‘What about your driver’s licence, Mick? We can show him that.’
He just stood there.
Suddenly, he seemed to snap into life. ‘Look, just forget it,’ he said to the owl guy. ‘Shona, get yer necklace back an’ ah’ll meet ye outside.’
We were sitting at Costa – one coffee between us.
‘Mick, Ah think we would’ve got a good price for that necklace.’ I looked at my split nails and rough, neglected hands as I pondered. ‘There might even have been enough left for me to get ma nails done …’
Mick sat back a bit in his chair.
‘Nah, Shona, ye’re right. Me and ma big ideas. Ah never learn.’
I stopped looking at my nails and looked instead at his wee face, unmasked now in order to drink his share of our coffee. He looked sad.
‘ Ah was lyin’, Shona. No’ aboot the interview – that was legit – but aboot me. Ah couldnae have done that job even if Ah did get it. Ah’ve no’ got a driver’s licence. Never even had a lesson. Ah never had the money, to be honest.’
‘Then … what was aw’ that aboot? Yer interview? The bus runs tae the seaside?’
I didn’t really need to ask because I knew what it was about: a few moments of shared happiness, of shared dreams. It was what Mick did best.
‘But jist so ye know, ah would never have let ye flog yer necklace anyway. Ah know what it means to ye, bein’ the last thing yer Da gave ye before he … No, I wouldnae have let ye. I’m better than that.’ He looked thoughtfully at the table.
‘Your Da sounds like a good man. The best. May he rest in peace,’ he added, respectfully.
I nodded. Let him bask in his feelings of honour and self-worth. Of course he would have let me sell it. But I couldn’t, because neither of us had anything to prove our existence. Makes you think, that.
It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. The necklace had value, but it had no meaning. My Da had come across it during one of his so-called ‘house clearances’. And I’d nicked it from the haul under his bed before the cops took the rest of it, and him, away. One day I’ll tell Mick, maybe, but not today. I don’t want to spoil his dream.