‘Ain’t What They Used To Be’


He watches them from behind the relative safety of the reinforced window in the subway as they slap each other on their chests using the backs of their hands, the gesture reminding him of aggressive and victorious gorillas he’s seen on documentaries on the television.  But these apes are wearing turned-around baseball caps, the back of the hats flattening down any hair they might have and the bar across the forehead giving the appearance of branding; the insignia of war-paint. 

One of them – he thinks it is Samuel McGregor’s son because he has the same peculiar high brow of his father and also he’s heard him verbally abusing the shopkeeper  with the same soft lisp he shares with his father – is curling the front wheel of his bicycle around and around with the dexetrous ambivalence of the hardened unemployed.  He remembers Sam McGregor’s own dad, Spike, who he used to share a bunk with at the barracks and wonders what he’d make of the behaviour of his grandson; how well he’d take the news that this boy now passes little packets of cling-filmed drugs around the same town they’d both once vowed to uphold and protect in the name of King and country.  It makes his own heart sore to witness these things.

Another of the lads – they can’t be more than nineteen or twenty – is sitting on the back of the wooden bench which he knows has a bronze coloured plaque screwed to it: Remembering Mrs Elsie Collins (1924-2009) who loved to sit here and watch the world go by.  The boy’s thick soled trainers are planted firmly on the slats of the seat and he’s licking the length of a roll-up and laughing, one hand reaching out to whoever has just made the joke and the fingers slapping together in a snap! of appreciation, the way the kids do these days.  And again he’s reminded of the animals in the jungle.  Does this make him their prey then – the way he is hiding inside here, fearful of going out in case he is spotted and targeted?

He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and retrieves a packet of lozenges, taking one out and popping it inside his mouth.  The honey-sugar sweetness hits his palate and saturates his gums and he is immediately transported back to his ma’s floury kitchen table.  She’d spent most of her days baking, scrubbing and cleaning in this one room and he spent his formative years being amazed at the things she could produce with one pair of hands and very little assistance from any of her six sprawling children.   The barley sugars were his fathers and his ma’ used to filtch one or two from his pocket after he’d fallen asleep in front of the fire, then carefully divide them – sometimes into as many as ten tiny shards – with her sharpest kitchen knife and then use the pieces to bribe her children into keeping out of the way, keeping quiet, or just keeping still.  This taste is his own personal time machine.

Another lad similarly dressed in denim jeans which hang from his hips and his rear – looking as though he’s been recently released from a prisoner of war camp and is having to wear the first pair of trousers given him – arrives at the group.  He lopes towards the gang in an arrogant, disgruntled manner, his eyes sliding around as if he’s either expecting trouble or looking for someone to make it with. 

He watches them as they perform their trademark greeting: slaps; waves of the arms, more circling of bicycle wheels and sometimes a spin of the caps from front to back and then in reverse again.  And he wonders how satisfied they feel when they finally retire from these, their daily pursuits and head home; if their sense of achievement is anywhere near the feeling that he used to get after he’d finished a solid ten hour shift at the factory he worked at for forty six years from leaving the army; and whether their bones feel the weariness of exhaustion that his own felt, falling with groaning appreciation into the welcoming give of their mattress.

And not for the first time he wishes he could still speak of these wonderings to his darling, sweet Elsie as they sit beside the four bar fire in their council flat, a light ale and a sweet sherry in their hands while they wait for the racket from these, their fractious and loud-shouting neighbours, to ease before taking themselves off to bed and, God willing, sleep.

Written for the www.creativewritingink.co.uk image prompt 8/09/2016


4 thoughts on “‘Ain’t What They Used To Be’

  1. Another brilliant piece, as usual, Deborah. So close to real life, you manage to get inside your character’s head beautifully and really real thoughts and feelings. I was a little confused with setting. We start in a ‘subway’ but find ourselves in a council flat at the end? Not sure how we got there. Could you check paragraph starting ‘Another of the lads’ as you have a typo ‘make’ should be ‘made’ .


    • Hi Carole, and thanks – as ever – for reading and commenting. I’m not sure I do need to change the tense to the past ‘made’ as we’re in the present throughout the story – “as if he’s either expecting trouble or looking for someone to make it with.”
      And the image of our main character and his dearly departed Elsie is just that – we’re still in his head in the present but he’s wishing he was able to go home and tell her about his day and his thoughts as they (used to) sitting around the fire in their flat.
      If you think it still needs rewording, I’m happy to hear how you think I could do this. x


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s