Sunday, 3 February 2013

Salt and smoke

When I schlepped out of the Corner Pie House my stomach was full with… well, let’s leave it at something meaty, and my mind was overflowing with thoughts.  The evening had started off with a simple visit to Little Boy Blue and had gone wildly off the rails since then.  Natasha Monkeybutt showing up had been bad enough, but another sighting of the deliciously prestidigitational Miss Sapphire and the mention of Mad Frankie had done nothing but boost my dyspepsia.  Then Jackie, Belle Peep, the Corner Pie House, and now a suggestion that Jack Crown might be watching me.  I needed somewhere where I could lie down, listen to my bones creak and my tendons snap, and think about what was going on.  The trouble was, it was the wrong time of day, or rather, it was night-time.  I share a room with a hard-working young man with the deal being that I have the room during the day and he has it at night.  It maximises the utility of the room, which should make any amateur economist happy, and by happy coincidence we maximise the use of the bed too.  In my case by sleeping in it, and in his case by the sheer volume of clients he… takes care of.  We’re a boon to the economy also as the sheets have to be replaced roughly weekly, though we argue over who puts the most wear and tear to them.  So going home wasn’t an option for at least another five hours.
I trudged up the street, avoiding the piles of rubbish and walking through the puddles of liquid.  They might have been water when they fell from the sky, but they’d have been added to since, and now only needed a lightning strike to start the evolution of life all over again.  My shoes have seen worse though, and my trouser cuffs are permanently soggy; the doctors occasionally marvel that I haven’t got trench-foot, trench-ankle, and trench-shin.  That is, until they discover the athlete’s foot and exactly how pernicious it is, and then a look of understanding comes over their faces as they recoil, holding tongue depressors before them in whatever religious symbol they prefer, and attempt to exorcise me from their offices.  I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and while I’ve been in a few foxholes, taking my shoes off and showing the ends of my legs to people seems a more sure-fire way of finding what God there is in a person.
Left at the top of the street, turning a corner housing a greengrocer on one side and some residential houses on the other.  They were tenement buildings, once town houses but now taken over by several families and divided up amongst them.  The windows housed cracked glass, darkened by smoke and years without cleaning and tattered curtains fluttered at only a couple of them.  A pale face like an anaemic ghost peered out of one briefly, not seeing anyone in particular on the streets below, and then was cuffed away by a fist like a shovel.  I stepped heavily on a soft turnip that squished, and remembered that I should look where I’m going.
The street at the top, Cuttermonger street where the knife-sellers used to sell out at three and then hide behind their shutters until the fighting died down and the participants had died off still had knife-sellers on it, joined now by the wok-istas who cooked street food in huge, hot, cast-iron bowls over charcoal fires.  Smells of smoky spices filled the air, some from the food and others from the sticks of lemon-grass and cinnamon that the vendors threw on the coals deliberately.  Meats, neat little cubes coated in marinades that made it impossible to guess what they were, sizzled in pans as people stated their orders and proffered their money; ginger, garlic, chili peppers, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and river-shrimp were added, and sauces, usually sticky and sweet, redolent of memories of other people’s childhoods, were poured over.  Then a handful of salt, large flat crystals that seemed inclined to rest on the surface like dandruff, was thrown on at the last minute before it was all scooped out with a little wire net and dumped unceremoniously into a cardboard box whose bottom would give out in five minutes, so you had to eat fast.
Normally I avoided Cuttermonger street because it made me hungry and smell like a three-day-old barbecue pit, but having just eaten a decent meal for the week I was feeling like I could handle it, and I breathed deep as I walked along.  Salt and smoke, two of my favourite smells in all the world.
At the end of the street I turned left again, and started down Nobs Hill.  The houses here were smaller but better kept; the people here still had pride, and one or two, during daylight hours at least, would run out and chase the likes of me away with brooms, tea-towels, and occasionally secateurs.  There was no real money here, just a determination not to be seen to not have any.  Now, with evening behind me and the night beckoning invitingly, the householders were all inside, tucked up in their beds with threadbare blankets, kept warm more by their dogs than their pride, and the street was mine to walk down.
And of course, the real indicator of wealth for a neighbourhood is what else is there other than the houses.  At the bottom of Nobs Hill was the overflow morgue, outside whose doors I stopped.

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