McKenzie was not happy.
Not another Christmas party! he seethed through gritted teeth.
“Never volunteer for anything; never cause a commotion; always keep your nose clean and your head down” Wasn't that what his dad had taught him? And his grandad before that! Of course, while all the staff muckety-mucks were upstairs eating and drinking themselves into a stupor at the office party, here he was in the basement--sleeves rolled up, elbows raw, eyes strained -- taking stock of all the ancient printing equipment. Of course, the newspaper just had to relocate over the holidays--and he was the one who had to take the inventory.
“Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see the back of all this junk,” he murmured as he surveyed the dingy basement and erased another item from his clipboard.
McKenzie puttered around the windowless machine room. He could hear the hubbub of conversation and clinking glasses tumbling down from the party upstairs, mingling with the drone of passing Fleet Street traffic. Eventually, enough was enough.
“I need a drink!” he said to himself. He dropped his clipboard, threw his frayed raincoat over his arm and vaulted up the stairs, slamming the door behind him.
If only McKenzie had stayed a few moments longer, he might have nipped in the bud the following sequence of events: If only … he had stopped to fill out the required Machine Service & Maintenance Form A303B-Pt2 he might have heard the squeak of a rusty bolt loosened from its nut. If only… he had lingered to try to catch fragments of gossip from the office party upstairs, he might have heard the hacking cough coming from inside the huge piece of machinery behind him. If only… he had returned for his keys, he might have seen a pair of rheumy eyes framed in the glare of a weak flashlight or the gnarled fingers that retrieved a couple of screws that had fallen onto the oil-stained floor. If only. None of that happened, though. The pub was calling and McKenzie needed a drink.
Later that evening, he cast a lonely figure as he left The Olde Bell Tavern. Wrapped in his shabby coat, McKenzie pushed onwards against the bitter wind that swept along the Thames, over Blackfriars Bridge and down the Embankment. He stepped around the vagrants who slept on the side streets, trying to stay away from the harshest blasts of cold air.
Only the homeless, the foolish or the drunk should be out in this weather, he thought, and — in his inebriated state — not even recognizing that he qualified for two out of three.
“Any change, mate?”
McKenzie peered into the storm and into the craggy and careworn face of a homeless man who held out a calloused palm.
“Change in what?” After a couple of foggy seconds, McKenzie understood. “Ah, money… Sorry, no,” he mumbled and moved away. No way was he taking his hands out of his pockets on a night like this.
As McKenzie continued along the Embankment, the wind picked up strength. It whirled and whistled around his head and was soon accompanied by driving rain. It scattered the pages of discarded newspapers and sent them diving and dancing along the street, almost as if they had a life of their own. McKenzie -- his shoulders hunched and drawn -- fought his way through the storm and the newspapers that continued to torment him.
Harry Sweetnum was not happy, either. Having left work at The Scribe, he took a packed Northern Line train home. It took him 10 minutes to walk past the gray, characterless streets to his gray, characterless, semi-detached home. He was soaked. Fumbling for his keys, he opened the front door and tossed the remnants of his cheap umbrella onto the floor. He glanced into the kitchen and saw his wife — Denise — peeling potatoes at the sink and his son — Spencer — sitting at the table. Without acknowledging either, he walked into the dining room and poured himself a drink from that awful, faux crystal decanter that was an anniversary gift from the in-laws. Returning to the kitchen, he sat down next to his son and sighed, a sign that another tough day at the office had ended. Hearing the chair scrape across the linoleum, his wife turned around.
"Oh, hello," she murmured.
Harry sniffed in response and gazed into his whiskey glass. Denise shrugged and returned to her potatoes. Harry looked over at his son. Spencer’s face was thrust between the pages of a comic. Leaning across the table, Harry removed the comic from the boy’s grasp and dumped it on the chair next to him.
"Why do you let him read this stuff?” he said to his wife. “He’s always got his nose in some rag … the least we can do is make sure he’s reading something useful!"
There was no outward reaction from Spencer. He stared at his father, then climbed off his chair, picked up his comic and moved to go to his bedroom.
"Where are you going?” said Harry. We're eating now, right?"
"The potatoes aren’t cooked yet," said Spencer, returning to the kitchen table. “Don’t you have to cook the potatoes first?”
"These potatoes are not for us,” replied his mother. This took a moment to sink in with Harry.
"What you mean, ‘They're not for us,’" he said. "Who else do you cook for in this house?”
“It's for Mother. I'm going over there later.”
“Can't she peel her own potatoes?”
“She can, yes, but her arthritis is playing up and she asked me if I could. It's just this one favor.”
Harry closed his eyes, calculating whether it was worth the trouble starting a row when he was this tired. He took a deep breath.
“Well, how about doing us this one favor? How about cooking the pair of us a decent meal, on time and on this table when I get home? How about that, huh?”
He threw down his napkin and stormed out of the room, knowing that although he had started the argument, he did not have the gumption to finish it. Denise refused to be drawn in. Her only reaction was to grit her teeth and peel each potato with renewed vigor.
Spencer looked from his Mother over to his Father's empty chair, shrugged and continued to read his comic. Harry returned to the table without his jacket and tie but with another scotch. This time Denise looked up.
“I saw Mavis Williams in the supermarket today,” she said. “Did you know that her Adam is working for the Tribute now? Apparently, they all received two months’ salary as a Christmas bonus. Now that's a company I'd like to work for ... he gets six weeks off a year, a company car ... private health benefits ...”
Harry stopped her there. He took another swig from the tumbler and then slammed it on the table.
“I know exactly what they get at the Tribute, OK? In fact, I know exactly what they get in every metropolitan newspaper in England, thanks to you. Your knowledge of the working terms and conditions of the newspaper industry, in the year of our Lord, 1985, never ceases to amaze me. However, if you knew the working terms and conditions of the Great British Housewife, I would feel much happier.”
Denise smiled to herself.
“Did you have a good day at the office, dear?”
“Yes, thank you, sweetness and light,” replied Harry, with equal sarcasm. He noticed that Spencer was reading the comic again.
“I thought I told you to stop reading that rubbish!”
Spencer stood up, folded the comic under his arm and walked upstairs to his bedroom. He thought of slamming his bedroom door, but that would be too much.
Spencer’s bedroom was his sanctuary. His mother rarely ventured in — except when laundry was a necessity — and he could not remember the last time his father had crossed the threshold. If by chance his Father had wandered in he would have noticed that — unlike many other 10-year old boys — Spencer’s bedroom walls were not adorned with photos of exotic cars, football stars or hirsute rock ‘n’ rollers. Instead, hundreds of pages ripped from comic books hid the fading wallpaper. Spencer wished he were a better artist, but made up for it by being an imaginative writer. He had overwritten many of the speech bubbles with his own text, which — in his opinion — greatly improved the stories.
Spencer stared aimlessly at a small, portable black and white TV set. It was without a remote but that did not stop him changing channels, searching for something — anything — that was worth watching. Finding nothing, he returned to his latest comic. Using a blank sheet of paper, he cut out numerous speech bubble shapes and glued them over the original words in the comic book. Then he sat back, chewed the end of his pencil and waited for inspiration to take hold. How would his Superheroes get out of this one? he thought … and thought, and … nothing. Inspiration was on holiday, too.
Spencer clambered over his bed and gazed aimlessly out the window. The sky was low and the clouds reflected a dim, yellowish glow from the few street lamps that were still working. The wind tugged at the remaining leaves on the sickly beech tree behind the garden shed.
Wait … what was that in the shed? Spencer thought he saw a faint light, maybe from a glowing cigarette. He peered through the evening gloom. There it was again! This was puzzling … not even his dad would venture out on a night like this for a quick smoke in the shed. Anyway, he could hear his father’s favorite TV quiz show blaring from the front room.
Spencer tucked his comic into his back pocket, padded down the stairs and grabbed the flashlight that hung from the umbrella stand. He pulled on his coat and boots, cracked open the back door and headed out into the night.
He made his way down the path that led to the shed, repeatedly shaking his flashlight in a vain attempt to get something more than just a weak, flickering beam. He stood on tiptoes and peered through the dirty windows, trying to find anything unusual among all the broken garden furniture, rusted machinery and abandoned projects that were strewn about inside. Unable to see anything clearly, he slipped the latch on the door.
Inside, the shed was dark and crammed with all sorts of odds and ends that made silent navigation impossible. Spencer shined his flashlight in a slow arc, its narrow beam picking out mementos from days past; his first skateboard; a deflated and mildewed plastic paddling pool; that old greatcoat that his dad wore… Wait! His dad never had a coat like that. He was a 100 percent imitation Burberry man.
Spencer moved in for a closer inspection when something caught his eye. He swung his flashlight over to identify the source. Spencer smelled the stale acridity of tobacco in the air. He held his breath and listened for any movement. The beam of his flashlight settled on a mass of crumpled newspapers in the far corner, where he heard a faint rustling. Spencer squinted through the gloom and picked out the rhythmic rise and fall of the newspapers along with the unmistakable rasp of a gentle, chesty ... snore. At that moment -- as he recognized the sound that rose from deep within the pile of newspapers — the beam of his flashlight settled on a section of the papers that had parted to reveal … the bearded and wizened face of an old man.
Spencer staggered backwards in a hasty retreat, tripping over a rusty lawnmower. As he reached out to break his fall, the only thing within his grasp was a metal shelf, also the final resting place of a stack of half-empty paint cans.
It would have taken a great deal of purposeful effort for Spencer to have made any more noise as each can slid from the shelf and onto the concrete floor of the shed. Spencer winced as each can hit with a clang.
The old man sat straight up, confused and blinking. A grimy tea cosy sat atop a mass of tangled and tousled hair. A pair of battered, wire-rimmed glasses were perched delicately on a boxer’s nose. His face was lined and weather-beaten from too many nights spent under the stars. His eyes, however, were sharp and clear.
“Who’s there?” demanded the old man. “Who is it? I’m not afraid, I can handle myself. Come out where I can see you.”
Spencer stayed in the shadows, rubbing a shoulder dinged by a falling paint can. The old man shielded his eyes.
“Well … what do we have here?” said the man. “Come closer so I can take a good look at you.”
Spencer did not move.
“Come on. You’re not afraid of an old thing like me, are you?” Don’t believe that stuff about me being able to handle myself. I’ve still got my glasses on and I never fight with my glasses on and I always wear my glasses, so that’s OK, right? Come on over here.”
Spencer shuffled forward so the man could see him better.
“Anyways, I haven’t been in a real scrap since I was in the navy and that must have been, oh, let me see, before you were born, I’d say.”
Spencer’s curiosity was piqued.
“You were in the Navy?”
“Twenty years, man and boy. That’s what give me these itchy feet. Never can stay in one place for long.”
“My father gets those,” Spencer said.
“Itchy feet. He says it’s because of the nylon socks my mum buys him. He says all he needs is some quality cotton product and he can do without all that talcum powder.”
The old man chuckled. “He’s right, too! You can’t beat nature’s fabrics … and I should know more than most.”
“Why is that?” asked Spencer.
“’Because I’ve spent more nights out alone under the stars than you’ve had hot dinners, I reckon. It’s at those times that you get to appreciate them good fabrics what nature gave us.”
“You sleep outside?”
“You bet, kid. Underneath the stars, gathered ‘round a bonfire … a few friends, a nice cup of tea to keep body and soul together. Lovely, it is!
“Sounds like the Boy Scouts.” Spencer said.
“Well, no, I’m not exactly a boy scout. I’m what you’d call a gentleman of the road, a vagabond, a bag man.”
“You’re a tramp?”
“Well, no offense taken, son,” the old man said. “I suppose that’s one way of putting it, although we prefer ‘Gentlemen of the Road.’ I’ve still got a little bit of pride left, you know.”
Spencer was embarrassed. “Sorry, it just slipped out.”
“I’m just messing, with you,” said Nobby, looking around. “Besides, this place is hardly Buckingham Palace, is it? Who lives here?”
“I do,” said Spencer, relieved that he had not offended his guest. “Actually, I don’t live here, I live in our house. This is just where we store stuff when we don’t need it.”
The old man was incredulous.
“You're telling me you don't use this stuff, kid? That's an awful waste. There are things here that I could really use. As a friend of mine was saying just the other day, ‘Nobby’, he says, ‘people don't use half the things they've got these days.’ And you know what? I had to agree with him… 'cause it's true.
“Nobby? That’s your name?”
“It's as good a name as any, ain't it? Maybe you'll never hear of a king or a ballet dancer called Nobby, but I can't see why that should bother me.”
“Nobby, yes. I like it. Nice to meet you, Nobby. I’m Spencer.” Spencer held out his hand in a fake formal greeting. Nobby stood up, brushed all the newspapers away and pumped the boy’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, too, your highness. Now, where was I? Oh yes. You'd be amazed to know what you can do with everyday household objects. Take that watering can, for instance. Did you know that with only the smallest of adjustments you could transform it into a modern hydroelectric power generating system? A friend of mine says to me, ‘Nobby,’ he says, ‘all it takes is a bit of applied skill, and you could create enough power to more than double what you use at the moment.’ Now take that hosepipe …”
Nobby’s monologue was interrupted by yelling from within the house.
“Well, if you don’t like it, you know where the fridge is. Make your own dinner!”
Denise’s voice reverberated down the garden path and into the shed. Spencer heard his mother stomp to the foot of the stairs and shout up to his room.
“You can come down now; your dinner is on the table.” She waited for a response, but received none and marched back into the kitchen.
Back in the shed, Nobby was regaling Spencer with stories from the field.
“You really did that?” asked Spencer. “What did he say?”
“What could he say? He had never seen a scarecrow playing the penny whistle before, had he? He stood there with his mouth wide open until I finished. Then he climbed on his combine harvester and drove off to tell his missus, I suppose.”[JD3]
“Weren’t you cold?”
“To be honest, in the winter it was brutal out there,” Nobby continued. “Even natural fabrics won’t keep body and soul together. That is why we come into the city, to find some artificial warmth. Even here —with all this technology around us — it’s becoming a real problem to find warmth at night.
“You could sleep here,” said Spencer.
“Thanks, kid,” Nobby replied. “It’s not just me, though. There’s a whole bunch of us, and somehow, I can’t see your mum and dad welcoming us into their garden shed, can you? Something about keeping house prices up in the area, so I’m told.”
“Where do you sleep now?”
Spencer’s eyes widened. “No!” he said. “My dad works on Fleet Street! He works for The Scribe.”
“Really? I don’t think I know him. Mind you, we probably move in different circles. Does he sleep on the street, too?”
“No, of course not!” Spencer looked at Nobby to see if he was serious.
“It’s not that bad. You see, while your dad is leaving work to go home in the evening, the newspaper presses are just starting up, preparing to print the next day’s papers. When that happens, all these old printing machines create a lot of heat. That heat has to go somewhere and right now, it gets blown into vents and then out through grates onto the pavements around Fleet Street. That goes on all night long. So that’s where we sleep. It’s like having our own central heating system, only it’s outside. Lovely! Snug as a bug in a rug, even on the coldest nights.”
Spencer frowned. “So, what’s the problem?”
“Technology,” replied Nobby, suddenly serious. “New technology, see? What with everything getting more and more competitive and with them newspaper publishers seeing their profits dwindle, some of them have decided to ‘rationalize.’
Nobby motioned for Spencer to move closer and whispered, conspiratorially.
“We have it on very good authority that there are plans to move out of the city and set up somewhere cheaper in the sticks. And when one newspaper does that, then the rest will have to follow like a load of sheep. They're afraid that if one does something on their own, they might gain an advantage, so everyone follows along.”
“Why don’t you follow them too?”
“Oh, were it that easy, kid. Technology again, see? Technology and electronics and computers. It's all electronics and computers now, and there's no warmth in them. Coldest thing ever invented if you ask me.” Nobby paused to consider this before he continued. “The newspapers are building their new headquarters out in cold, industrial wastelands. Built to their own specifications. They're worried about the competition, but they're also worried about their own workers. Unions and all that. These new premises will be built like Fort Knox. Barbed wire, concrete … the whole Alcatraz deal.”
Nobby paused, and then broke into a grin as if sharing a private joke with himself.
“We're not beaten yet, though. We’ve got something planned for them. We're going to have warm beds and blankets for years to come if everything goes to plan.”
Spencer was puzzled, but before he could ask another question, Nobby bounded out of the pile of newspapers and shooed him out the door.
“That reminds me, it’s about time you got yourself up to bed. I’m used to it, but this is no place for a young buck like you to be spending his winter evenings. Now … hoppit!”
“But Nobby!” Spencer pleaded.
“Don’t ‘but Nobby’ me. I know what’s best for you.”
“You’ll be here in the morning?”
“Where else am I gonna go, eh?” And here, don’t forget this.” Nobby handed Spencer his comic that had slipped out of his pocket during his fall. “It looks great; what is it about?”
“Well,” said Spencer. “These Superheroes are fighting against the forces of darkness…”
Nobby pointed at the blank speech bubbles.
“They look like they don’t have a lot to say for themselves.”
“The writing in these comics is not very good,” Spencer said. “So, I replace it and write my own stories instead. I’ll go get one that I’ve completed so you can read it.”
“You know what? Show me tomorrow. You’ll be fighting the forces of parental darkness if you don’t hurry.”
Nobby jostled Spencer with a couple of pretend jabs before closing the door and retreating into the shed.
“See you in the morning, then,” Spencer said to the door. He reluctantly backed up the path, into his house and crept upstairs. He took one last look at the shed before climbing into bed. Outside, the wind had picked up again. It swirled between the side of the house and the garden shed, carrying with it an almost unworldly, whistling tone.