“ ‘Story?, Anto.”
Anto shuddered, hearing his name called. He didn’t suffer from the nerves. He just liked to know what was coming, the better he’d be able to handle it.
“Ah, Jem,” he said, spotting his greeter, “what’s the crack with yerself?”
They were standing on the corner of Bolton St and Capel St, well out of Jem’s comfort zone, this far south of the river. The streets were crowded with students, office workers and beleaguered parents. There was an urgency about them.
What would bring Jem down here?, he thought, if he’s follyin’ me he’s in for a surprise.
It didn’t really bother him if anyone followed him. They’d have two chances, he thought, and Slim’s out of town.
Walking away, disappearing, did occur but it might attract more attention, raise more questions than simply engaging. And giving nothing away.
Jem was a hustler, in modern parlance. Since he could never be a hard man, information was his currency. Jem knew everyone’s deal because he never had one of his own but could hook up another to his and their mutual benefit.
He was tall but impossibly thin and gangly. His head was so big, people said he got the wrong one when they were sharing them out. His hair was ginger, not quite orange but a near relative. It was whispy, too so it looked like he was standing in a breeze no-one else could feel.
His sunken black eyes completed the image always shifting restlessly in the dark depths of their sockets.
He wore a new shellsuit, an impossibly lime green colour with five thin red lines running, diagonally, from shoulder to hip. He reminded Anto of a praying mantis.
“Down here the markets,” Jem drawled like a brass monkey, “t’see if I could scrounge box o’ grapes.” Jem had no truck with prepositions.
Anto could see no grapes but Jem wasn’t finished. Conversation with Jem was like putting five jigsaws together from one bucket and no pictures.
“Saw dem filling skip, clearing out, gonna rob trolley, take’t home,” he heard him say.
A glance up the street revealed the skip in question and men with wheelbarrows busy dumping the contents of an old apartment, he assumed or refitting a shop.
Anto surmised he meant to steal a supermarket trolley from the Polish or Chinese supermarkets on the same street. This he’d fill with chosen skip booty to sell in the market closer to home.
“ ‘Bout yerself? ‘Haven’t seen ye around.”
Here it was, the question Anto knew was coming and an answer he knew, Jem would turn to his advantage, somehow.
They were not social buddies, by any stretch. In Jem’s neighbourhood they weren’t likely to share a greeting never mind the time of day.
His life was as much of a mystery as he could manage. People saw him coming and going. They never saw where he came from or where he was going. He greeted everyone he recognised and even some he didn’t because he knew, if they saw other people greeting him, they’d wonder who he was and why they didn’t recognise him.
In his neighbourhood, even the marginal people had their pecking order that, in turn, determined how others treated them. So, while Jem was a bit of a waster and a hustler, he wasn’t a scumbag and not all the scumbags were brass monkeys or junkies and not all the scumbags were homeless, either.
No, Anto was in a category from which there was no return or rescue. He was, by anyone’s definition, a nutter, away with the fairies and more than a ham sandwich short of a picnic.
People either ignored him, left him alone or hailed him with an amused greeting that expected no coherent reply.
“I was at a funeral,” he said somberly, crossing himself, his eyes shut as though sharing a sad reverie.
“Sorry for yer troubles,” Jem muttered, sheepishly, “was it a relative of yours? where was it?”
Anto regretted his decision to talk to Jem. He was a dog with a bone. He wasn’t giving up.
“Don’t know,” he said, adding, “I got a train.” He smiled and clapped his hands.
It worked. He hoped. He felt Jem make a decision.
Clearly dissatisfied but feeling himself lose his tentative grip on a new snippet, Jem rubbed the back of his neck, swivelling, stared intently at the by now brimming skip and walked away.
Anto sighed, watching Jem’s stick like figure retreat. He knew, in Jem’s mind, he’d been robbed but he hadn’t a clue of what.
Jem once tried to sell him a steak outside a supermarket from where he’d robbed it. When the security from the shop nabbed him, his shirt brimming with vacuum packed rib-eye, filet and sirloin, he was outraged.
Anyone else, Anto thought, might have wondered why he was dressed like an Edwardian dandy. Not Jem.