Originally published by Fizz Online on 12 January 2022
The man I called Mr Gorkell was coughed out from the sky. His hair fell as the willow weeps and his face buried in the change on his palms. He was just another blob. The Square tried its hardest to keep him hidden. But there was a flicker of light in the corner of my eye, like a coin in a puddle. I stopped for a second look.
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, f-fifty, s-eventy, eighty, ninety-
He funnelled the change into his back pocket. It Jingled as his trousers wiggled. Was that Father Christmas, wondered a little girl. She stood corrected; he smelt not of gingerbread and hot sugared doughnuts, but of warm cider and smoke; hard cheekbones that would make her draw an impoverished Father Christmas, without colour, at school for a Christmas card. Her parents remarked how beautifully and artfully coloured it was.
His eyes were so lurid, just like a fish at a market. Bleeding. The pavement was not wide enough, and a frigid man grazed him. I was sure that they would wash their jumper, leave it for either the moths or the memory to sift away.
On my way to the crossing, Mr Gorkell had settled outside an old bakery. One of those that you only notice now. Windows painted with misty swirls. Shadows of an old sign above. A plasterer’s van. Dirty buckets of dried plaster outside the door. Dark objects loomed in the bay window.
“They’ve closed it,” he shouted.
He followed walker after walker, to tell them what they were missing. Wasn’t it obvious, they thought after they were told. A student stuck their eyes to the pavement, put in their ear pods. I was sure I recognised them. Mr Gorkell followed them, strutting like some bird, head bent to catch their eye. He knew that they had seen them.
I set off across the Guildhall Square, toward my accommodation at Barnfield. I glanced back to check on him. But he just stood there, lost, passing glances at faces he thought he remembered. A man slouched on a bench spoke to his friend: “…giving information to the police…” and the Square swarmed in with so many questions. It must be a difficult job that, whoever they were, maintaining an identity that could slip just like that. That would be them done. Whoever they were, I felt frightened for them. What was his relationship with this person? Everything around us seemed to get louder. The Square was determined to keep things lost.
“…getting no drugs-” I slipped on a banana peel. I looked back at the peel and to them on the bench. I had to laugh. Everyone was drinking now from my embarrassment. Laughter was that way you could slip back into the crowd away from their straws.
“Nasty,” said his friend.
A chihuahua lashed at anyone near the fountain. Thinks he’s a rottweiler, their owner would repeat. I could hear a screech on the other side and mangled notes of music. The dog was interested in a woman’s loose lilac hijab, who sat on a bed of leaves. Thinks he’s a rottweiler, the owner would laugh with another passerby. The woman.
My stomach rattled his tin cup, getting peckish, so I found a place on the Guildhall steps to eat one of my almond croissants. And I looked out again for the fish-eyed man. Across the blobs, so many, of black, grey, navy, and brown. He may have disappeared. Gone forever. Dissolved like salt in water, a sour taste which I would only recognise as the decline of the high street, not Mr Gorkell. But he called out. To me? I of all people, he was sure, were not to forget him. Slicing through a busker’s sore throat:
“The Borneon priest has swung too far.” With the roll of an O, a yellow butterfly spun from his mouth. He gave his hand to it, for it the rest a while on his palm, for the salt. There was not enough room on his hand. Smaller and smaller they became as his words were hushed. The butterflies were a glimmer in his eye. I observed with wonder at the man I had deemed humorous, if not scary. His eyes bled more than anyone in the Square.
The butterflies came and went. Pigeons beating wings, his words carried no further than to tarp himself. Lifeless words sputtering. His voice became strained to be heard, and the buildings surrounding the Square crumbled, holding their hats, and reassembled again in seconds at the spin of an O, a butterfly on his palm.
“The orange priest-” His head swung to look out and duck from the swinging priest, as did I.
But a small boy, skin so dusty, stabilised the world again, if only for a bit. He held his breath so his cheeks did not look so full. The shops surrounding us swayed now, dully, like candlelight. He hobbled towards the traffic lights. His nose pressing onto a car window, hands and fingers spread all bear to see:
The driver was aflame, flapping their arms about like some inflatable man. The square was carpeted with their horn – a relief to anyone within earshot of the busker. And Mr Gorkell lost all power to crumble the buildings or even spin a letter. The car had vanished before the light had settled on amber, and the boy, on the floor, was demanded by the Square to stop making a scene.
Mr Gorkell and I did not forget him. “What a twat,” I thought, but these words are severely lacking in any action. As bad as anyone else here. Mr Gorkell had taken action. Feeling briefly the sickening feeling of belonging, he funnelled most of the change from his pocket into the boy’s hand. He lost his jingle, his intrusion into the imagination of children. By the time he returned to his podium, his proclamations were consumed by the Square.
As the sunlight waned, it did not take long for the square to drain itself of bodies, leaving only a few of us behind, performing strange rituals. Mr Gorkell was walking in circles, lifting his hands to the heavens, but cautious not to step on the cracks or edges of the flagstones for, perhaps, he anticipated their plot against him. A councilman organised his papers into rough piles on a plinth below me. A streetcleaner wearing a Rastafarian hat, swept leaves into his pan, humming his soul. An old couple in matching purple jackets maintained a fixed path across the Square as if confined to rails, tutting. They had mastered the art of talking through the slightly raised cheek or a widening eye. The little boy was leant over the fountain wall, lapping up wishes with his hand. Shutters closed. Storefronts delved the street into a greyer misery. There was an odour that perhaps drew everyone out, that gave me a nervous tickle in my stomach, urging me too to go. I felt the body I have always wished to leave. But I was here as well, regardless if I wanted to be, conducting my own rituals.
There was a crack on the step to my right. A crack between continents, perhaps; a fault line for ants, which I ran my finger across, meeting all the turns and jags of the split as a needle on a record player. I thought, as I leant, firmly closing one eye, to hover my cheek above the crack, Mr Gorkell looked as if standing on the edge of a great shift in the earth. Preached before a great drop, where doubtless many people he knew had disappeared, or he continued the conversation they had failed to finish. My chest was held up from falling by only a few frail strings. He walked in circles, jeans Hula hooping, stepping so close to the edge. But he was so small. I laughed. A crack for me, a chasm for him, a madman in a square for anyone else.
He stopped his violent preaching, again, at the sight of the boy, who had been lapping wishes. His mother left the leaves and stumbled over to pull him away. Smaller and smaller they got, but the corner was running from them.
Mr Gorkell funnelled whatever remained in his pocket to his hand. A victim to a shortchanging bus driver, I guess. The jeans could have a hole in them. It wouldn’t surprise me if it had fallen out, the way they wobble. He appeared in awe of the lapping ritual witnessed. He dropped his holy book down the chasm and ran to the fountain. He glared at himself, looking out from the bed, his voyeur. I had to go. I felt my own deadlines encroaching. I needed to do some washing. As I swept the flakes from my lap, I looked up once more, to see the man swishing the water, side-to-side. The water nearly dashed the councilman’s leather satchel. Mr Gorkell pocketed no money, only swishing, swishing like trying to catch a salmon with his bare hands.
The shadow of the Guildhall, a glum rubber-like shape, was cast over the fountain and square. There was a breeze now like a slap to the cheek. I felt like I owed Mr Gorkell my eye. Bad for finding him funny.
The sun had emerged from the clouds for the last time. It was a cold, pale yellow. Colder, I think, than beneath the shadow we shared.