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 real 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 sounded 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 old Da used to say.
‘Yeah, they’re fine, Mick. They look good.’ 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 battered right on to talk about himself. ‘Did Ah tell you Ah’m gettin’ a job on the buses?’
‘Aye right, Mick, is this another of yer daft stories?’
‘Naw! Whit makes ye think that?’
‘Cos Ah know ye, Mick! Yer always at it! Mind that time ye were gonnae open a magic shop and that was all ye talked about for weeks and then the next thing yer training to be a stand-up comedian? You and yer daft ideas!’
I thought that would maybe take some of the wind out of his sails. But no. Not a bit of it.
‘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 of his because Mick, for all his shortcomings, was surprisingly well-read and Dickens was his favourite. . ‘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 exasperation because he dropped his voice to a more conspiratorial pitch. ‘Ah’ve got an interview the morra morning! Jist a ‘preliminary assessment’, like, but at least Ah’ve got a foot in the door …’
Reaching inside his hoodie, he brought out a folded-up bit of paper. ‘An’ there’s the letter, tellin’ me where to go an’ that.’
I inspected the grubby, dog-eared thing It was from the Jobcentre right enough.
‘That’s brilliant, Mick! Well done! Ah’m so chuffed for ye! But … whit ye gonnae wear? Have ye got a nice clean hoodie ye can put on?’
‘Hoodie? You’ve got tae be kiddin’ me! Ah cannae turn up for an interview in a hoodie!’ He looked genuinely affronted at the idea. ‘Actually, Shona, I was kinda hopin’ like, that ye’d come tae the shoppin’ centre wi’ me an’ see aboot gettin’ me a jaiket tae wear the morra …’
‘But, Mick … Ah’ve no’ got any money right now. And neither have you. It’s no’ yer pay day.’
‘Ach, nae worries, Shona! We don’t need money!’ He was grinning under his mask again. ‘Have you forgot aboot oor special skill sets?’ Nothing ever daunted Mick. He always had a plan.
On the bus over to the shopping centre, I was aware that Mick was buttering me up. This could only mean one thing – he was planning for me to do the dirty work today while he ‘kept edgy’. He would be the lookout. He usually was. Maybe that was his special skill set, then. 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 ye on a wee bus run tae the seaside. Mibbe Saltcoats, even! Ye like Saltcoats, don’t ye?’
‘Mick, see this job – is it like coach trips an’ that? No’ like jist drivin’ folk intae the toon?’
‘Aye! It’s coaches, an’ they dae trips tae the seaside – Saltcoats, an’ … beaches an’ castles 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’ never goin’ anywhere nice except mibbe the wee park across the road fae ma hoose. Ah mean it’s a nice park but ye jist stoat’ aroon’ the place wi’ the auld coffin-dodgers and their designer dugs! Aye, It’ll be great to go somewhere different. Jist think – the wide open spaces where we can take in aw that 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 was closed. Permanently. Debenham’s – our favourite place to pick up a few luxury items. Gone. This was a disaster.
‘Aw naw man, what’re we gonnae dae?’ Poor Mick looked a bit distraught. 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 increasingly screechy and he was starting to draw looks of suspicion and downright contempt from disdainful 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 that.. 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. 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. Mick, yer like a wee brother tae me, 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 the new jaiket won the day. He helped me take off the necklace and even gave it a wee shine and polish on the sleeve of his grimy hoodie.
‘Shona,’ he announced, handing the necklace to me with a flourish, ‘my dear friend, I am deeply indebted to you for what you are doing as I know how much …’
‘Jist give it a rest, Mick, will ye?’ I tried to sound irritated but couldn’t help smiling at his overblown display of gratitude.
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 jaiket and I was going straight from here to Tesco to buy a bucket and spade and maybe a wee bikini for the seaside.
‘First, I need some details. Do you have some ID?’
‘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 in my tiny crossbody bag except my fags, my phone, 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 standing there, staring straight ahead. ‘What about your driver’s licence, Mick? We can show him that, can’t we?’ No response. ‘Mick?’
Suddenly, he seemed to snap into life. ‘Look, jist 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 dirty, bitten nails and pondered. ‘There might even have been enough left to get mysel’ a wee manicure …’
Mick sat back a bit in his chair.
‘Nah, Shona, ye’re right. Me and ma big ideas …’
I stopped looking at my nails and looked instead at his wee face, unmasked now in order to drink his share of the coffee. He looked sad.
‘ Ah was lyin’, Shona. No’ aboot the interview – that was legit – but aboot me. Ah would never have got that job. 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. I understood.
‘But jist so ye know, ah would never really have let ye sell yer necklace. Ah know what it means to ye, bein’ the last thing yer Da ever gave ye … No, Ah wouldnae have let ye. I’m a better man than that.’ He looked thoughtfully at the table, quite impressed with himself I think. Then he sighed. ‘And yer Da, he sounds like a good man, too. The best. May he rest in peace,’ he added, respectfully.
I nodded. Let him bask in his delusions.
Of course he would have let me sell the necklace. But I couldn’t, because neither of us had any means of proving our existence. Makes you think, that.
It wouldn’t have mattered, though. The necklace had value, but it had no meaning. My Da had brought it home one night with a bag of stuff he’d got from a ‘house clearance’ as he called it, and I’d nicked it from the stash under his bed before the cops found it and took it, and him, away. One day I’ll tell Mick, but not today. I don’t want to spoil his dream.