‘Touch’ A short story by James Friel

It’s two in the morning, the middle of a city, the shop windows mostly blind. Even the street lamps are pale. A cinematic rain drenches the world, turns it monochrome. It might be a scene from an old movie, something British, low-budget, black-and-white and starless, except how to explain this architecture: these operetta balconies, the Tudorbethan stylings and medieval pastiche of the Rows.

This can only be Chester, and the Cross, the time a wet summer’s night in 1958.

In one of these covered walkways, he hopes to find a shelter. At the corner of Bridge Street and Watergate low beams and raised floors make it look cosy enough to bed down. He isn’t homeless. Drinking after hours at the upstairs bar at Barlow’s – the temporary landlord a Derry man – he’s just not sober enough to walk through all this wet to his digs in Saltney.

He’s not yet my father. He’s in his early twenties, not long from Kildarragh, Donegal, miles and miles of mucky fields and then a mountain, a tiny farm with too many brothers, him the last and made to feel the least. There’s the accent he’ll never lose, the Gaelic he’ll not use again. A happy immigrant, he looks already English – American even – in his Humphrey Bogart overcoat, a fedora tilted and dripping from the rain. Back then men wore hats all the time and then they stopped. He never will. Bald so young, the only hair he can claim is the rim of it round his skull that he grows long and combs over. It’s the one serious dent in his smooth and useless beauty.

Daytimes, he’s just another Paddy on the Lump. That means he gets up before dawn, stands outside Woolworth’s on Foregate Street with a crowd of others, all ages, mostly Irish. Vans pull up, a bloke gets out of each one, takes the pick of the men. He’s picked most days. He works on building sites, digs up and tarmacs roads, had a hand in the roundabout at Ewloe and the new bridge in Conway or Conwy as we spell it now. Long days in all weathers, but so was tending sheep, cutting turf and graiping for spuds in Donegal. Here’s a better chance at life. Here’s electricity at the click of a switch, water from a tap, not a bucket in a well. Here’s cash in hand, untaxed. Here, when he walks, loose change rings in his pockets.

There’s a girl back home in Letterkenny, one waiting to be wed. In time, she will be my mother. For now, she lines her bottom drawer with linens, Mass cards, the splinks of money he sometimes sends, his too-few letters, a photograph of him in Rhyl, head back, laughing and, surely, forgetful of her.

There’s no bus, not even a taxi, not that he’d waste the money. But for the rain, he’d relish the long walk, this urban night, lamplit streets, main roads as open as he imagines the future to be, but he’s to be up at six to meet the vans in Foregate Street and now the rain redoubles. It bounces in great ticks off the tarmac. It hangs in great pearly beads from the rafters of the Rows. He can hear the gutters brim and the drains fill and flood.

He steps further back into the doorway of a shop, a deep recess. The gloomy window holds pyramids of paint cans, packets of Oxydol, a string of empty birdcages and bicycle wheels, a fanned display of tin baths. Nothing he’d want to buy. He tips off the fedora, soggy with rain, tugs at the collar of his overcoat, and someone behind him says, ‘Oi,’ but not unpleasantly.

The someone’s a man who’s also taken refuge there. The lamplight does not reach this far. His age and face can’t easily be determined. My father, young and dapper and only a little tiddly, laughs and makes some crack about the rain.

This facility with strangers my father always had, a trait he didn’t get from his glum family, and not one he passed on. Other men fall easily into chat with him. He has the knack for friendliness, to be at ease with and make at ease anyone he is not obliged to love.

And he’s handsome, too, which helps, and this might be why this other man, the one in the doorway, reaches out and touches him.

Touches him?

Touches him, my mother said, telling me this story just once and years later, after he was dead, when I was sixteen, and the mystery of him only increased.

Touched him how?

Touched him where?

What did that matter, she said. To touch a man at all was queer enough and strange.

I didn’t press her further. To be curious would show that I, too, was queer and strange, one more thing she spent her life studiously not knowing.

At this touch from this fellow, so queer and strange, my father strikes out.

His fist smashes full force into the fellow’s face.

The fellow’s head crashes into the window. The glass shatters around him, a sudden halo.

Even in the rainsome dark of the Rows, my father must see the blood burst from the broken nose. He must feel with almost equal pain the thick squelch of flesh and bone as his knuckles crack the fellow’s face. He must share with him the same startled yell, the same injured cry.

The fellow drops to the ground, and does not move.

The fellow does not move at all.

The guardsman’s defence, it’s called. Or the Portsmouth defence sometimes. He touched me, m’lud, so I battered the bugger. He grabbed my arse, m’lud, so I killed him. Even today it might get you an acquittal.

My father didn’t know this and so he runs.

He runs through all that rain, down the steps of the Row and pelts down Bridge Street, no one about to stop him, catch him, no cars on the road to impede him, only the rain, and down to the Old Dee Bridge, the river at low tide, its muddy bed grey in the moonlight. He might go down there, sink into the mud and be nothing at all thereafter, but his God and his prayers are against this. His God and his prayers are all for saving him, protecting him but without knowing how, and so he runs, runs along the river where the swans, awake, stark white against the river’s black, bend and turn into question marks his God and his prayers cannot answer, and, no breath left in his body, no thought left in his head, he falls to his knees.

Comes then this tap on his arm, this touch.

A policeman.

A bobby on the beat, another period piece, caped and helmeted, a truncheon hanging from his belted waist: a Jack Warner type. The world is still a movie, The Blue Lamp, my dad no longer Bogart, but young Dirk Bogarde, panicky and in tears.

He falls onto the bobby, hugs him by the knees, ‘I’ve just killed a man. Help me, Jesus. I’ve just killed a man back there.’

A drawing of the father begging at the knees of the policeman

The policeman hears him out, and, one arresting hand on my father’s sobbing shoulder, walks him back along the drizzling streets and up onto the Rows to Cusick’s Hardware, its doorway empty, the fellow gone, the shattered window more like a silvery spider’s web, smears of blood on the door, a further smattering of it along the ground until the steps, and then no more, just rain and the empty streets.

The stranger has vanished into nothingness, into an anecdote, one my father will write my mother and who will tell it to me just the once, and now I’m telling you – or, perhaps, his ghost.

I’ve come to know him better since he died, not that he wanted to be known at all. Family photographs are so revealing. Who stands next to whom? How close. How far. Whether the people touch or not. There’s only one photograph of him with me, a fat baby in his arms. You’d well believe he loved me – he holds me like a prize – until you search for any others of us together. Thereafter, he stands off camera, taking the picture or somewhere else entirely.

Mostly, my memory of him is a broken reel of film, stolen images I can’t quite stitch together. There are too many gaps. I remember his feet, his legs, the back of him the times I dared to look; the sound of him, the bray and yell of him, the silences he shed like tar; and the effect of him on my skin: the belts, the bruises, the burns, the day he whipped me like a dog out in the yard so neighbours could watch him bring his sissy son to heel.

You might say I had the sense of him.

He’d leave the house early, come back late or not at all. He’d eat after us, in the kitchen by himself, stay there in a mood. There were the mates we never met, places he spent his time but never took us, a life somewhere better than any he might live with us.

When I was twelve, that life came to an end.

He crumbled. An ambulance came in the night: a stroke. A month later, another stroke so hard it felled him. He never walked unaided again. His speech so slurred only my mother understood him. Bedridden and stuck with us, my job: to empty his pot; go to the chemist for grown-up diapers on prescription; watch him when my mother was at work; no television, no radio: colours and noise disturbed him. Then long periods in hospital wards, so little left of him he hardly occupied the bed.

Boxing Day, one last stroke, almost a caress, and all that was required.

I’m older now than he ever was, taller by half-a-foot. God has let me keep all my hair, but I have his eyes, his mouth, his eyebrows, and in any mirror he floats towards me.

Sometimes, imagining that empty doorway, I hear them laugh – my young dad, the old bobby on the beat – my father with relief, and the policeman saying the fellow got what he deserved. Bloody pervert, lunging like that, groping a nice young lad. Queers, hanging too good for them.

The stranger’s dead – or must be by now.

Did he turn up in the Emergency Ward that night with his broken nose, splinters of glass in his skull, and some story of how he slipped in the rain?

What became of him?

Who was he before, and who was he thereafter?

A criminal.

Back then, that’s what he was and all he was and could be until the day straight people realised they liked us all along, let us marry and have kids and do legal things like love.

He’s no stranger to me. I know him better than my father. I’ve been him countless times. I’ve stood with him in obscured doorways, underground car parks, in train and service stations and other less than legal places. In those outlaw days, this was where you learned what and who you were. This is where you found and practiced the nearest you could get to love.

This means I’ve come to reconsider that touch – that lunge – that gesture – whatever it was – that came so suddenly, so unbidden and unwanted.

It doesn’t work like that.

You wait for a signal from the other.

You wait for some gesture, some welcoming look, the eyes travelling down the body, released from their usual custody.

The fellow in the doorway would have waited for such a sign.

Tipsy and in the privacy of the deserted Row, might the encounter have begun in mutual desire?

At the very least, a curiosity too strong to resist?

Did my father wonder what it might be like to lose himself at last and for just this very moment, to lose himself in this rainy night with no one else there to see or judge or tell or even know?

Whatever way it began, wherever it was meant to go, the encounter turned to panic. It turned to violence. It led to running away. Some patterns are inviolable. My father ran away from an entire country, from so many of his jobs, from his marriage, from his son.

After he died, every now and then some man or youth would knock. They’d ask for Frank or Les or Dave, never his real name. My mother wasn’t one for strangers. She’d say he was dead and close the door.

A touch is a decisive thing. A life might turn on a touch.

I know the Rows better by day, its shops and cafés, its businesses. In daylight, parts of it glitter with antiques and gold. In daylight we live in colour. At night, deep night, its architecture grows achromatic. The film changes stock. Cinema and architecture, Walter Benjamin observed, are both made of light and space, of sound and motion.

Soon it will be common to wear haptic gloves, haptic clothes that let you feel things in the metaverse. You can become your own cinema. You might live in Sheffield or Zanzibar and, properly suited and plugged in, walk the Rows as if for real.

But imagination, rightly used, already achieves this tactile effect. Memory most definitely. The intense recall of a touch, a blow, a slap, a caress, and you reel back. Your very skin responds. You feel again. You feel anew the sting, the stroke, the kiss, that original shiver of desire or of disgust.

I keep revising and revisiting that scene, the rare and all but lost footage of my father’s young life.

I place myself within it, me as I am now, and him as he was back then.

We are strangers to each other, but drawn close for this one time.

We are real to each other at last.

We are there.

I keep the cinematic rain, the hush it makes. I keep the black and white. It emphasises the dark, and the dark is so companionable. The night, the rain, the covered walkway of the Rows hide us from the world and, almost, from each other.

His eyes brim.

His lips part.

He cannot speak.

He need not speak.

My hand rises to hold his astonished face, not to seduce, but to console us both for what was done and what will be done in all the future years.

©James Friel

James Friel’s most recent novel is The Posthumous Affair. His other novels include The Higher Realm, Left of North, Taking the Veil, and Careless Talk. He is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Chester and has tutored regularly for the Arvon Foundation and at Ty Newydd.

Illustration: ©Tim Foxon