Hippo Man by Shannon Savvas
Georgie opened his eyes. The glowing numbers of his digital clock burned through the cold and dark. Five-forty-seven. He’d better get up. Face this day. A day no different to yesterday, no different to tomorrow, but for slivers of hesitations, laziness or carelessness all of which only made things worse not better. Ever. Even so, he snatched another five minutes more, knowing it could mean the difference between a dry bed or one swilling with urine. But she was still quiet. She whimpered when she’d peed herself. He shut his eyes. Just a few more minutes of warmth and peace. At five-fifty-two, he knew it was as wrong as it was pointless. His brain demanded he get up and see to mum.
Georgie tossed the bedclothes back, rolled out and sat on the edge, elbows digging knees, the heft of his head pressing into his hands. He shivered in the creeping chill of the unheated house.
For a fat man I feel the cold too easily. Maybe it was tiredness.
He’d not bother to shower; the immersion was too expensive. He’d heat the water later for mum.
Just get dressed, you piece of lard.
He pulled his track suit off the floor and over his pyjamas. That’s all he wore these days, elasticated waists and zipped jackets over charity shop T-shirts. Easy wash, easy wear. He wheezed pulling on socks and winced when his ingrown toenail snagged as he stuffed his suet-pudding feet into his trainers.
Across the hall, came soft noises of distress.
He shouldn’t have lingered. Mum was likely to last a few more years. There was nobody else. Just him and her and the unchanging misery of it all. There was no end in sight. He was fat, unemployed, bored and lonely. He wished this life would disappear.
Stupid forty-year-old crying. Stop it!
In her room, he pulled back her curtains and flicked her bedside lamp off.
‘Good morning, sunshine.’ Georgie worked the lightness. ‘How are we this morning?’
He knew from the gag-rush of ammonia when he lifted her sheet that she was in a pool of cold urine. Just as he knew from the fumbling of her fingers and her wordless litany, that for no reason she was irrationally fearful of his reaction. He slipped one hand under her assessing her soaked nighty, sheets and mattress.
Sopping. The whole bloody bed. Bugger. You stupid piece of shit.
He stroked her hair with his clean hand, ran his fingers lightly over her cheek. At his touch, mum’s agitation drew down.
‘Sorry, Georgie,’ whispered from her lips.
‘Oh dear, Mum. Never mind let’s get you clean and dry. Then we’ll have a nice cup of tea you can watch Susanna and Piers while I get breakfast and do the wash.’
By nine, she was asleep in her chair. Georgie needed a sit down. He pressed play on the DVD remote to watch the next episode from Michael Wood’s series on Alexander the Great. He’d seen it so many times it was a bloody miracle it still played. Mum had given it to him for Christmas ten years ago, when she was still able to care.
At eleven, he hurried down to the local minimarket and the library – crime novels for mum, books about Ancient Greece and Rome for him. For solace. Lorna, the district nurse would be round in the afternoon and he had run out of her favourite biscuits. Twice a week she came to give Mum a good bath and dress her leg ulcers. After she would take her break with him.
‘George my darlin’, you make the best cup of tea.’ Lorna managed to make Georgie feel good about himself. ‘I wish some of my other patients had relatives who cared.’
Lorna always called him George, not Georgie. She was the only person who did, and it pleased him. Georgie made him feel like the perennially fat boy alone in the school yard. Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie. Except he never kissed the girls. George made him sit straighter and swear if only to himself he’d lose weight, go swimming at the baths. Twice a week, Lorna gave him a few drops of her oversubscribed time and they’d share a joke and the neighbourhood gossip in the kitchen. For a half hour of cool-water conversation slaking the parched existence of his joyless life. Crisp gingernuts were a small price to pay.
At uni he’d backpacked across the world, now his orbit was fifteen minutes’ walk in any direction from twenty Ledbetter Grove, mum’s terraced council house. At the local Tesco Express, queuing to pay for the biscuits, bananas and fresh milk, he watched scrawny thirteen-year-old Shane from number twenty-two flicking through the latest Fast Car before moving on to the kids’ magazines. Only last week, Shane, swilling cans of lager and smoke in the back alley with his mates, had grinned up at Georgie watching from the spare bedroom window and given him the finger. Behind the nets, he watched the boys hotwire Sam Pettifer’s battered Ford Capri and drive off. According to Lorna they raced it through the park and smashed it up against the playground bollards. He remembered later that night, Georgie’s bedroom wall had percussed with the violence of Shane being hammered by Jerry, his mum’s current live-in boyfriend.
According to Lorna, Shane was mad, bad, and dangerous but Georgie had seen another Shane. One not normally out in the light. The boy had picked up old Mrs. Hunt’s shopping the day a marauding swarm of his mates had sent her flying, howling with delight at the terror of mob rule. On other sleepless nights, Georgie had seen the boy, with a tenderness too old for his years, help his young battered mother into a neighbour’s house at midnight when Jerry had again come home drunk and raging.
The queue shuffled forward. Shane brushed back his peroxide-yellow hair and fingered three glossy super-hero comics, palpating the vacuum-wrapped freebies on their covers, getting ready to jam a couple inside his parka. Mrs Prasad on autopilot at the till watched him as she scanned goods and doled out change. Shane didn’t even care he was being watched.
He has brass, the little shit-stirrer.
‘They’re rubbish, those stories,’ Georgie said, knowing as the words left his wet lips that he’d made a mistake.
Shane dumped the comics, furious now all eyes were on him.
‘Yer what, Hippo Man?’ His nut-brown eyes promised Georgie twenty kinds of regret. Shane was the one who’d coined Hippo Man. Now all the kids and even some of the adults called him that.
‘I said those characters are rubbish. If you want to read about real heroes, I’ll lend you my books on the Greeks. The real super-heroes. Assuming you can read that is,’ he added in a further show of stupidity.
‘Want to show me yer collection, do yer?’ Shane sniggered. His hips simpered. ‘Always thought yer were a perv.’
‘No, I said I’d lend them to you.’
‘Fuck off, Fat Man.’
And Shane was gone.
There were a few audible tuts and head shaking but most of the customers had heard worse. Georgie wondered why he’d opened his mouth and crucially what retribution he’d suffer for embarrassing Shane. He suspected it had something to do with the film 300 which had been on the movie channel last night. He’d been incensed by its comic-book fantasy so far from the truth. Maybe that was why he’d spoken to Shane in the shop, not just a misguided desire to keep the kid out of more trouble.
He handed Mrs Prasad his money, pulled a plastic carrier bag from his pocket and packed his groceries.
Five minutes later he reached the library. He’d finished reading mum Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d and was going to try her on Ruth Rendell. How much she understood he no longer knew but the act of reading to her pleased them both. He left the library with An Unkindness of Ravens and for himself, The Gates of Fire, a historically correct fictional account of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae which he’d read several times.
‘So, who are these Greek geezers, then?’ Shane slouched against the wall, casual and challenging, his hood pulled up leaving his face in shadow.
Georgie, stopped mid-stride on the library steps, had trouble exhaling. The little turd scared the shit out of him. Georgie looked up to see if the sky was falling. Sweat pearled on his brow. He shuffled, shifting his now leaden carrier bag from one sweaty fist to the other. He felt oily and cold.
‘Well, Hippo Man. Who are they and what’s so bloody great about them?’ Shane ground the cigarette he’d been smoking underfoot. The effect was menacing.
‘Um, Achilles. Alexander. Ajax. Leonidas.’
‘Ajax. That’s a football team, yer perv. The rest sound like poofs. Is that why yer like them?’
‘I’m not a perv nor a poof. The football team is named after the hero.’ You little turd.
‘Yeah? Yeah, whatever. What’s yer proper name then?’
‘Georgie. George.’ Where the hell is this going? He’d been out nearly forty-five minutes. Mum would be needing the toilet and her lunch.
‘Which one is it then?’
‘Which one what?’ Georgie was puzzled. He was still waiting for a slate to smash his head, or his legs to be kicked, or his shopping to be set on fire.
‘Yer name, idiot. Are yer as thick as yer look?’
‘It’s George.’ He tried a smile, but it had the conviction of a hostage coerced on camera.
‘Ok George. This Achilles. He’s the one Brad Pitt played in Troy. I’ve got the computer game. It’s cool. Here give me that.’
Here it comes, Georgie thought as Shane took his bag of groceries, but all he did was carry it as they walked towards home. Shane fired an onslaught of questions about the Greeks at Georgie, barely giving him time to answer before another came hurtling. Couched in crude and rudimentary language there was nevertheless an undercurrent of intelligent and logical enquiry.
Over the following days, initially against Georgie’s better judgment, Shane borrowed and miraculously returned several of Georgie’s books on Greek history and myths. He found himself watching out for Shane’s skulking figure in the back alley, anticipating his brazen knock on the back door. He looked forward to the curt, insouciance of their exchanges and finally one Saturday morning he asked Shane in for a cup of tea.
Mum was in the front room watching television, canned laughter from a sitcom filtering through.
‘Is that yer mum, in there?’ Shane asked nodding towards the door. ‘Mum says she’s all gobbledy-gook and yer look after her. I hear her crying sometimes.’ That was the sum of Shane’s small talk and comment. Cradling a mug of sweet tea, three sugars, George, don’t be mean. Any biscuits? he cut straight to discussion of the Leonidas and the Spartans. He’d downloaded the film the day before and wanted to know how much of it was true.
‘Didn’t you read the book about the battle I gave you?’ Georgie asked, unintentionally stern, sounding even to himself like a prig.
‘Yeah. Sure. I found it a bit boring. Ain’t no pictures, is there?’
Georgie spoke carefully. The boy’s crudities had lessened, and his bravado stayed out on the streets, mostly. And despite Shane’s stinking cigarette smoke and the dusting of ash he left on the lino, the kitchen had become lighter and warmer the past couple of weeks.
‘Well, yes, I know some of the language, especially those Greek terms are hard. I had to buy a dictionary when I started reading it. Maybe we could read it together and I can explain a few things, you know, stuff that’s a bit difficult or ... archaic.’
Deep in the shadow of his ubiquitous hood, Shane stared at Georgie. George stared back. Each laid bare his truth. In that moment Georgie let the nakedness of his loneliness and need float between them. In that moment Shane didn’t protest his inability to read. In that moment Georgie admitted his helplessness and his silent passion for the heroes he could never be, and Shane struggled like a snake shedding its skin to slough off a future without hope. In that moment each understood what the other had seen.
The moment hung, critical and desperate. If Shane slammed the tea down and stomped out, life would return to misery and isolation, but now such an existence would be almost unbearable after their odd flirtation. This was Shane’s Rubicon moment, not that he knew the concept. Yet. What he knew was that this fat pathetic man had seen his ignorance but had not remarked on it nor mocked him. Had seen he craved knowledge. A way out. George could teach him; not just to read but about the world beyond the invisible walls of Ledbetter Grove, the rec grounds and High Street. In that moment, the look that passed between them accepted the weaknesses, the longing and the needs of the other without comment.
‘What do you think?’ George nudged The Gates of Fire across the table. ‘Try again?’
‘Yeah, s’pose I could, sometimes.’ Shane, back to feigning reluctance and boredom, opened the bidding. ‘I can’t do it evenings though. I’m out with me mates. How about mornings?’
‘Mornings you’re in school. How about afternoons?’ George countered.
Shane considered it. ‘The teachers are a load of morons at school, what’s the point?’
‘The point is morons or not, they’re educated morons. They know things. Things you can use. You learn to exploit them for your benefit, not theirs. And we both know you’re good at exploitation.’ Georgie softened his words with a wink.
Shane threw in two more conditions. ‘This’ll be between you and me, right? And get some better biscuits. These are crap.’