WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Victoria Hendry’s The Last Tour of Archie Forbes
Archie counted his steps from the park to the bank: 460 – a third of a kilometre. The numbers filled his mind, kept his focus in the present, and on the childhood savings passbook growing sticky in his hand. If he was lucky, enough interest might have accrued in the intervening years to buy him a hot meal.
As he reached the bank, his reflection followed him along the tinted glass window to the door and he pushed it open. Archie didn’t smile because there was something wrong with his smile. People flinched when he bared his teeth. His lips turned up alright, but when their gaze raised itself to his eyes on the smiling cue, what they read there frightened them, and he usually apologised and turned away. He couldn’t spot what scared them when he peered at his face in the mirror, leaning forward as he cleaned his teeth, or if he glanced at himself in a passing shop window. He looked like anyone else, but the sleepless nights written in the lines at the side of his eyes, the small, staring pupils – black dots zoomed in on far-distant memories of war – were unsettling. People looked down the wrong end of the telescope into the horror that played over his soul, hiding inside, barely held in by the muscles of his face – an almighty scream, a continuous roar of anguish. There was no place for it in this bank, this ordinary place with beige carpet tiles, sponged wallpaper and the company logo inlaid on the surface of the counter. So neat, so tidy, so well fitted together.
The teller was wearing a hijab. Not one of those black numbers he remembered from Afghanistan, but a flowery scarf wrapped round her heavy hair.
‘That’s your copy, sir,’ the girl said, passing him a sheet of paper. ‘Just sign at the bottom to confirm you wish to close your account.’
It was dated the 12th of September, 2013. She passed him £3.14, which had lain there untouched for years.
‘Oh,’ he said, looking up. ‘I thought it was September the eleventh. Like 9/11.’ Even as he said it, he knew he had made a mistake. Her mouth became a thin line. More than the Twin Towers had collapsed that day. Something about trust had gone too. Something about President Bush’s holy war had filled the gap – a war on terror – and Archie had become one of its foot soldiers. The fine dust of Afghanistan seemed to pour from his clothes. It sat in his pores, turning him a grey-pink. He saw the teller flick a glance at the security guard. What was it the brigade adviser had said? Use cultural empathy to build strong relationships. ‘Look. I’ve been in theatre,’ Archie said. ‘I get it.’
‘Which theatre? What do you get?’ she asked.
‘That 9/11 is nothing to do with you. I just thought it was the eleventh.’ He leaned on the counter. Talking like this was tiring. He’d been walking since 6 am when the church night shelter had turned them out. Early morning was the longest, coldest part of the day. ‘All friends together, eh?’ His face was close to hers. She turned her face away. He wondered if he smelled and sniffed under his armpits. She pushed her chair back. There was no glass barrier in this new world of free communication with the customer, just cameras, pointing their lenses like sights on rifles. Eyes everywhere; closeted in basements, watching; watching for cracks as they appeared in the happy picture; ready to send in agents to paper over them, to restore that happy normality that made money, filled bellies, fuelled cars and marriages.
The guard who had been hovering near him ever since he came in walked over. Archie held out his hands. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m not being funny. Genuine mistake.’ He turned to the girl, ‘Sorry,’ he said, and smiled his killer smile.
The guard took his arm. Archie shrugged him off. ‘Let me take the three quid,’ he said. The guard nodded, and Archie scraped it off the counter with his too-big hand and slipped it into his pocket. ‘I’m leaving,’ he said. ‘No need to see me out.’ He laughed into the silence.
The guard watched him go. The old lady seated near the door kept her eyes on the carpet, as if wondering how all those tiles fitted together. Her husband looked up, saw Archie reach for the silver handle and spot the ‘Press to Exit’ pad only after he had pulled the door twice. Outside, the traffic stopped at the lights, and pedestrians began to cross with the jolt that signalled the start of movement after the moment when, just for a second, everything stood still.
Pausing at the junction, he decided to walk to Leith, to the Homeless Writers’ Group. The tea was free. Crossing the Meadows, he passed from Princes Street, with its department stores and women window-shopping, onto Leith Walk. The Walk was a huge downward hill, a long slope to a port that had once been great. It was lined with shops: second-hand furniture emporiums; quiet doors offering discreet advice to pregnant, single mothers who wanted to keep their babies; pawn shops dressed as bargain stores where, for enough cash to buy that week’s food – if you were careful – you could pawn your guitar, or your mobile phone, and hope that somehow, next month, it might be different. It was a place where you could allow yourself to believe that it might not be worse, because somehow, something always turned up, didn’t it? He looked into the window of the Polish delicatessen, past the peeling, white, vinyl letters that said ‘Polski Sklep’, and over the jars of pickles and sausage. It looked like a museum to another world, a sepia memory of a distant culture, trying to survive here on a concrete road, with crumbling gutters and bus fumes sticking in grey particles to the window. He drew a love heart on the glass, and then a cross through the middle of it. It was a gun-sight. A gun-sight, for God’s sake. He began to shake. A gun-sight. He leaned against the glass, his handprint obscuring the mark. The man inside the shop looked over and shook his head. He waved him on, and his lips moved to form words, the shape ugly, or polite, or indifferent, impossible to say. Perhaps he wasn’t even speaking to him; perhaps it was to the customer. Perhaps it was about the ignorance of the locals; this uncouth land that wasn’t home. Archie walked a few steps and bent over, feeling sick. A woman pushed her pram round him, looked at him as if he might be drunk. He walked on. Did he reach the door to the group five minutes later? Was it an hour? They were slow to answer the buzzer. A small metallic voice asked him to repeat what he had said. ‘I’m here for the writers’ group. The writers’ group,’ he said, and the door swung open on a room filled with computers.
‘Nice to see you …’ the group leader glanced down at her notebook, ‘Archie. Nice to see you, Archie,’ she repeated. Word perfect now. She waved him over to a seat pulled up at a central table with six men seated round it and two female volunteers, unmistakably better fed than the men, one bespectacled, one American. Specs and Peanut he called them in his head: a refugee from a lonely retirement and a gap-year student, here to launch their magazine into the e-zine forest on the internet. ‘Some kind soul, who wishes to remain anonymous,’ the organiser smiled at Mike, who called himself Archie’s new, best mate, ‘has donated a lemon meringue pie, or am ah’ wrang?’ she said.
The group failed to laugh at the old joke. Specs passed him a cup of tea and a silver tin of sugar, with coffee-coloured lumps riding high on the white snow field within. ‘No sugar, thanks,’ he said.
‘Let me guess, you’re sweet enough,’ said Specs, and he imagined her head exploding like a watermelon hit by a practice shot. She stood up and mumbled something about putting the kettle on again. ‘Go, Suki,’ he said.
The group leader looked over.
‘Suki put the kettle on,’ he muttered.
‘I’d like to remind the group of a few ground rules,’ she said, not looking at him. ‘The group operates on the principle of mutual respect – of kindness – of supportiveness.’ A passer-by paused to light a fag outside the window. She looked across at Archie, and her smile was pointed, dazzling. ‘So if we’re all on the same page? We’re going to discuss the contents of the next issue.’ Her head swivelled away. ‘I think you said you wanted to include something about the bedroom tax, Mike?’
Archie looked down at his pie, steaming from the microwave. ‘Sorry we don’t have any forks,’ said Specs, standing at arm’s length. ‘Can you make do with a teaspoon?’
He nodded. There was cat hair on her sleeve. Mike was reading a draft of his article about the bedroom tax in a sonorous voice – a poet, a prophet. ‘This unjust, unworkable tax penalises the most vulnerable in society, docking their benefit payments for a second room, even a box room.’ He paused. ‘I have cited an article in the local paper about the so-called help-line staff saying to that disabled man who phoned up to ask where his son could stay when he came to visit, “Ever heard of an inflatable bed?” An inflatable bed? That really got my goat. They expect him to go into a one-bedroom flat, only there aren’t any available. I’m going to have to move too. I can’t afford my second room. It’s going to cost me £14.95 extra per week. That will put me into debt.’ He looked round the room. ‘My article should get them rattled. That gives me some satisfaction.’
Archie looked down at the table. ‘Why have you all gone quiet?’ demanded Mike.
Them. Who was Them? The word sank into Archie’s stomach, reassembled itself with the pie into a picture-perfect world: mum’s home cooking, the crust just so; the army that looked after you, the country you served that loved you; that cheered you on parade on the High Street, marching from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, another long slippery slope, but lined with flags and bunting. The world he used to inhabit. The one where his wife waved in the crowd with his tiny son in her arms. The boy who was his spit. His spitting image. All watched over, kept safe, by the great, invisible Them.
‘John Swinney announced that the Scottish Government has earmarked several million to make sure that there are no evictions, Mike,’ said the organiser. Was she called Clare? ‘Something will work out.’
‘Something. Something will work out,’ Archie repeated.
‘That’s right, Archie,’ said Clare. ‘Something will work out.’
This pie-in-the-sky compassion was killing him. ‘You’re killing me,’ he said.
• Victoria Hendry’s first novel, A Capital Union, was released in 2013. The Last Tour of Archie Forbes is published by Saraband, price £8.99