The Street Knows No Mercy
A Short Fiction
By Daisy Wu
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. But, hey! Really. What do I know? I’m making it sound like I’ve discovered some kind of great, universal Truth; like I’ve done some kind of treatise on the subject, or something. Mercy, schmercy. The fact is I know fuck all about mercy. Fuck all about most things. Begging? Now begging, on the other hand, there is a subject that I do know a shed load of shit about. Begging and invisibility. No, you heard me right. Hey, now, don’t back off. Not now. Not when I’ve got your attention. I promise, I’m not a nutter. Really. Just give me a chance to explain. It won’t take long. My story is a short one. Mercifully.
Begging and invisibility. They walk hand and hand. Like… well… Okay, well, why don’t you think of some examples. What am I? A writer, or some kind of schmuck. It is the only compensation for a life on the street: invisibility. I am the anonymity of the concrete pavement slab. I am the chewing gum stain that the steam-cleaners can’t remove. I am so invisible, I’m practically a superhero. You pass me every day. And you’ve never seen me once. He passed me every day. And he never saw me once. Except today.
Today, he saw me. Today, he stopped. Today, I learned the meaning of mercy.
Give him his due, he didn’t really want to stop, any more than I wanted him to stop. Walk right on by, right on by, that was what I was praying for. Keep going. Walk on by. Surprising just how quickly a simple, little phrase like that can become a mantra in your head. Walk on by. It could have been a song lyric. Just, walk on by. Hey! I’d practically invented my own personal little meme, right there. Keep walking on by. I’ll tell you something, though. And this isn’t just something I’ve learned on the street. This isn’t just some of that “In my experience…” bullshit. This is fact. Straight up, pure and simple Truth. No matter how much you really want something, just saying it over and over again in your head, ain’t ever gonna make it happen. Not in real life. You know, I’ve heard all about these fellas that think they can control your mind; make you do shit just by concentrating hard enough. Baloney. With a capital B. And a capital O. Bal-Oney. In my experience, the more you wish for something, the less likely it is that it is ever gonna happen. Take him. Walk on by? Did he screwy. Did he screwy fuck. And yet at that single split second of Time, I couldn’t have wished for anything with any greater conviction. Not winning the National Lottery, not anything.
He knew I’d seen. He knew I knew. That was the problem. That’s why I don’t blame him. Not altogether. In his shoes: I’d have stopped, too. Couldn’t have done anything any different. Walk on by? It wasn’t an option. No point wishing for the impossible. Some people would call it Fate. Me? I just call it the Shit That’s Gonna Happen.
Invisibility. It’s good, but it’s not infallible. There is one kind of person that I’m not invisible to: the person with a guilty conscience. I suppose, it’s kind of like Superman and Kryptonite. Some people might call it my Achilles’ Heel. And today it happened to be him. Just my luck. The luck of the Irish, they say. Irish, schmirish. And, since I’ve got myself into something of the habit of spouting these glib generalisations, here’s another one for you: in my experience, those who know they are guilty see everything. He knew that he was guilty and he could see everything. Invisible? Me? No way. No way, José. The Guilty don’t just see me, they look right inside me. They turn me inside out. Dissect me, right there, like a patient etherised upon a table.
Watchful eyes. They can be a curse. But, hey! What else am I gonna do with them. And mine were watchful. Oh, so watchful, but what could I do? Lamia! Tear my eyes out, if they could take back what they had seen. But, it was too late. Fate? No. I told you before: Shit. The image of his guilt had already been processed. Blink. Just like that. Faster than I could do squat about it. Light had reflected off his guilt and entered my eyes even before I had an opportunity to close them; before I had an opportunity to make a conscious choice of whether I wanted to deal with all this shit or not. My eyes then focussed his guilt and turned it into tiny electrical impulses that were sent along to the optic nerve in my brain. And my brain translated the electrical impulses of his guilt and gave them meaning. Guilty meaning. Photoreceptors, rods, cones, lens, pupils, cornea: they all played their part. In my experience, there are very few innocent parties. In my brain, the memory of his guilt was already stored neatly away like a criminal record in a police station filing cabinet; all present and correct and ready to be withdrawn when the moment was right: “…and calling on the case for the prosecution, M’Lord.”
All that stuff about eyes just now… you know when I said that I knew fuck all? I lied. I know some shit, just not good shit. Not the kind of stuff that secures a good, safe, little desk-job. The kind of job that you do. The kind of job that all the commuters who pass me by, unseen, each day, do. The kind of job that he does.
Something else I know: his type. Most of us are a type. Much as we’d all like to think that we are individuals; uniquely carved in God’s own image, never to be duplicated. We’re not. We’re mass-produced. Factory models. Replicants. Moulded automatons, with no more individuality than… hell, I’m back to scrabbling for apt similes again. You use your imagination. You know what I’m talking about. Take you. You came out of the desk-job mould. Don’t get me wrong, now. I’m not passing any kind of judgment here. This isn’t a courtroom. I’m not saying that any one mould is in any way inherently superior to any other one. I am just stating a fact. Look at me. I came out of the unshaven-beggar-sleeping-on-the-street mould. It’s a level playing-field in the world of moulds, as the ambitious-company-executive mould might say. That was his mould. I could tell. I’d seen it before. Plenty of places. Except… Sometimes… you know, it’s a funny thing with moulds. Every now and again, you get one that has a slight flaw in it. A little burr attached, perhaps, which shouldn’t really be there. Or a little chink, which is left behind in the manufacture. A fault, you might say. But, once again, that is being overly judgmental. After all, aren’t we all here because of the “lucky faults” of evolution? The success of failure. The happy, little genetic accidents that spurred on our entire race’s progress from the trees to the savannah, and so to the glorious achievers we are today. Hey! Just look at me. Cold and shivering. In the gutter. Sat in a calcifying puddle of someone else’s stale piss. The pinnacle of several billion years of evolutionary progress. You think my argument has a fault in it? I can tell by your expression. The furrow of your brow; the way you won’t meet my eye. You may be right. A fault? Perhaps, but no bigger fault than the one that he possessed.
He’d been out on the piss. That much was evident. It wasn’t late. Eight o’clock, perhaps. Dark, of course, even with the street-lighting, but not late. Not proper late. Not last orders late. Not throwing-out time late. I knew his type, though. Like I told you before. He’d started drinking at lunchtime, probably with a client; someone he was trying to impress; someone he was attempting to out-drink; to lure into a state of benevolent indiscretion; gain a signature in the right place, on the right form, before sobriety returned. His industry? Insurance? Possibly. Insurance. It’s a joke, init? In the old days – God, that phrase dates me – it was called Protection. Political correctness? Bullshit. With a capital B and a capital S. Bull. Shit. Political correctness conceals more sins than it ever exposes. I prefer plain speaking, myself. The Man from the Pru? What is he other than a sanitised version of the Kray Twins. Only in a cheaper suit.
My reading of the situation – and, mark me here, I’m a pretty astute observer of the human condition – was that he never got his signature. He was pissed, but he was pissed, too. He was an argument waiting to happen. It was something about the way he walked: purposeful, you know. More purposeful than you would normally expect to be after a skinfull. In my experience, happy drunks do not hurry; do not rush along like an ever-worried commuter, eternally mindful of the clock. He was clearly a man nursing a hurt; a psychological hurt; someone who had been made to look foolish; who had stooped to the gutter of his own debasement and had still come away empty-handed. He was the beggar at the door of commerce, who had been denied what he thought he was due. A testosterone-fuelled tumbleweed of balled resentment, freshly thrown from the cowboy-film cantina, rolling down the middle of my street.
It wasn’t Mart’s fault. But, then again, it was entirely Mart’s fault. Perspective. It’s a funny thing, perspective. View something from one angle and it can look entirely different than when it is viewed from another. Have you ever see Holbein’s The Ambassadors? No? You really should. It’s hanging in the National Gallery. Not far from here. It’s free to enter. I should know. Did Uccello discover perspective? You see what I mean about the shit I know. He wouldn’t have known his Uccello from his elbow, and yet which one of us is drawing the five-figure salary. The playing-field is as level as the Hindu Kush when it comes to the possession of knowledge and the distribution of salaries.
Mart lives opposite me. I say ‘live’: the word is open to interpretation. I say ‘Mart’. I don’t know why. We have never spoken, despite the fact that he has bedded down in the same shop doorway, on the opposite side of the street, for over a month now. It somehow seems more neighbourly to give him a name. He could have been Graham, or Michael – probably not Sheridan – but I had settled on Mart, and that is how I know him. I say it was Mart’s fault. It was more that Mart didn’t know what he was doing. Mart knows fuck all. Really fuck all. I doubt if he knows night from day; reality from nightmare. It is a coping technique. We all have them, to a greater or lesser degree. Trouble is, Mart would shout out. Not that he meant anything by it. Nothing aggressive, you understand. He wasn’t being ornery, as they would say on the other side of the Pond, or any such shit. It was like a tick for him. A shrink would probably diagnose him as a sufferer of Tourette’s; would want to put a label on him; put him in a neat, bureaucratic box, signed, sealed, and drugged up to the eyeballs. Real life ain’t so simple. Tourette’s, schmouerette’s. Fact is, Mart was just a yeller. Two o’clock in the morning, he’d wake up and he’d yell. Six o’clock in the evening and he’d suddenly yell. Three o’clock in the afternoon and he’d be yelling. No reason. No explanation. It was just Mart’s thing. I can see by your expression again, that you’ve jumped ahead of me. It probably means that my story is palling somewhat. You’ve already guessed what happens next. Hey! I never said I was any kind of Agatha Christie. This isn’t a whodunit. I’ve already given the game away by telling you who’s the bad guy. As for the victim? I could present a pretty damn convincing case that we are all of us the victim; the kind of case that would stack up as evidence before M’Lord, but here… keeping it simple, like I said, you’ve guessed it already: Mart had ‘victim’ stamped right across his forehead. Victim of birth; victim of circumstance; victim of him. In my experience, those who start life a victim, end life a victim.
He probably never meant to hit Mart so hard. That one blow had a long afternoon’s brewing resentment fuelling it; more than that, it had a lifetime’s embittered self-contempt behind it. Fear and loathing? Your average ambitious-company-executive mould is a heady cocktail of both ingredients. Shaken and stirred; twist of lime. Do you know the biggest problem in the world today? No? Aspiration. It is a fast-track to discontentment and personal misery. You know what I say; what my advice is? I see those forehead-furrows again. You think it rich that someone in my position can offer any kind of advice as to how to best live a life. You know what I say to that? Fuck off. Capital F. Capital O. Fuck. Off. If you don’t want my advice, I won’t give it. No, bollocks. It’s a free country. I won’t be censored by the likes of you and your middle-class prejudices. What I say is: know your place. Simple. If your place is the gutter, embrace the gutter. The air might get more rarefied the higher you rise; doesn’t make it any easier to breathe.
Mart’s left eye-tooth is lying just beside the offside front wheel of that blue Citroën Picasso parked there. I saw it fly out. I watched it vacate Mart’s mouth in a bloody goblet, trailing saliva and drool like stardust, and perform a perfect arc – obeying all of Newton’s laws of motion and aerodynamics. I watched it from the very moment of impact of fist on jaw to the instant that it struck the panel of the car’s door, with a noise like a pellet from a rifle, and fell to the street, to add to the jetsam of pub-culture detritus.
If he had intended to stop Mart yelling by hitting him, he was mistaken. Mart yelled like a good’un. Respect. He gave it a proper, pit of the diaphragm, Caballé-style howl. Looking back, in hindsight as it were, it was possibly the thing that made him look at me. It wasn’t the invisibility thing, or any of that shit. No. It was my silence. In the street, at that moment, my silence was deafening. Next to Mart, I was the quiet man. The silent observer. I was the conscience, where Mart was the act.
You know, from street-level everyone is a giant. It comes back to perspective again. Uccello knew. It’s like the child’s-eye view. The crick-in-the-neck, perpetually-looking-heavenwards-at-cruel-authority, take on the world. This giant crossed the street, his fists still balled, the pooling blood in the knuckles of his right hand adding to the catalogue of incriminatory evidence of his guilt. He was a walking forensic crime-trail. I flinched. It was an instinctive reaction. My eyes were closed; my hands came up to protect my face – Hagler-style – not that it was any object of beauty in the first place. I waited for the blow to land; waited for the feeling of having my head displaced from its GPS co-ordinates of X and Y to X and Y+2.
You know what? Nothing happened.
In a second the world had changed. I opened my eyes. The first thing I was aware of was a sound. Figure that. I open my eyes and I hear a noise. Screwy. Either screwy or synaesthesia. You make your choice. It was Mart. He was still yelling. Added to that was another noise. It was the sound of someone crying. Not a discreet, into-the-hankie, snivel, either. This was a real, big-baby blubbing. It was the giant. It was him. He was standing over me; fists still tight like a weightlifter’s underpants; crying. Wet tears running down the side of his nose: DNA swab; take your sample any which way you like.
He was still watching me. His eyes remaining focussed in a face that had lost all other fixed points of reference. There was something different in his expression, though. The eyes of the bully had been replaced by the eyes of the devotee. He had not crossed the street to meet out punishment; he was a man in search of redemption. I was the altar at whose feet he sought sanctuary. He did not say a word, but his plea for mercy was no less vocal for being wordless.
I don’t know if Mercy was mine to give, but God help me I possess fuck all else of any value and, in the event, I gave it freely; abundantly. And, you know what? It felt good.
Mercy? It’s a two-way street. Invisibility, on the other hand. That’s a whole different kettle of fish altogether. Hey! Now, don’t walk away. Not while I’m still talking to you. Hey!
© Daisy Wu
To look at her, you wouldn’t think Daisy had such a potty mouth.