The Working People

Entry by: Tauren

10th March 2017
I met Susan for the first time four months and three days before she died.
That’s rather specific I know, but it was one of those, where were you moments. You know; one of those, where were you when Questions? Like, where were you when you heard had Elvis died, or, where were you when you found out Lennon had been shot?

I was in the front passenger seat of my dad`s Cortina; when I found out about Lennon, not when I first met Susan. We were inching our way along the Grand Parade, the six o`clock news on the radio. I was only half listening when the newsreader announced that John Lennon had been shot in front of the Dakota building, and had died en-route to the hospital.

Dad and I travelled home together on weekdays. His workshop was five hundred yards from Sawmillstreet tech, the secondary school I was attending. So every day at 4:30 I would stroll from one to the other, and for the next hour and a quarter I would sit at the desk in his pokey office that stank of old sweat and rust, doing my homework to the musical accompaniment of hammer on steel, and the “Screeee,” of an angle-grinders, until it was time to go home.

I can`t say that Lennon`s death affected me particularly badly; I wasn’t a Beatles fan as such, even though their music had permeated my childhood. No, what really grabbed my attention, what fixed that moment in my mind forever, was my father`s reaction on hearing the news. The gasp he gave was so unlike any sound that I had ever heard him utter that I turned to look him; and I saw such a strange look on his face. His eyes were wide and staring, his brow so creased that the frown reached up into his bald head (he had begun to go bald in his early twenties and completed the job before his thirtieth birthday) and he was gripping the wheel tight enough to whiten his knuckles.

In truth I had never taken him for a Beatles fan, or a fan of any band for that matter. He never listened to the radio except when driving; to my knowledge he had never so much as hummed along to any song, much less demonstrated that he knew any of the words, and there had never been a record player in the house until I got one for my fifteenth birthday. To this day his reaction mystifies me, and as he passed away some ten years ago it is impossible now for me to satisfy my curiosity.

Seeing Susan for the first time was like that, a moment that will be forever seared into my memory, and what struck me as so strange about her was how different to the other girls she seemed. I was taking my usual evening stroll down by the quays, bible as always tucked into the crook of my left elbow, when I saw her, leaning against the light-pole, and the breath fairly wrenched itself from my lungs.

She was petite, no more than 5` 2” with a stubby turned up nose and straight blonde hair that fell half way down her back. Her pink knee length summer dress was of material so flimsy it fluttered in the breeze of each passing car, her calf length white socks encased in black patent leather shoes. If it were not for the absence of textbooks I would have taken her for a schoolgirl.

I felt so sure she was lost, she was so unlike any of the working girls that milled around her, that I bee-lined towards her, ready to warn her of her predicament, when Tulsa, seeing me bearing down on the girl, said something aloud to her.

I could not hear what was said, I was too far away yet to make out the words, but Tulsa`s mocking tone carried to me well enough for me to discern its content, and it was then that I knew I had erred, that she truly belonged here.

Tulsa`s is a familiar face to me, I do not believe that Tulsa is her real name and had once told her so. “Are you expecting me to believe that they name their daughters after American cities in Nigeria?” I had asked her.

She grinned at my question, her teeth brilliant white against her skin, itself a near midnight black that glistened as if permanently oiled, “Would I lie to a man of the cloth reverend?” she`d drawled, “that would be a sin for a good Christian girl like me,” and she`d erupted into a fit of giggles.

There is something wonderfully infectious about Tulsa`s giggles, they have a high girlish quality that is quite unexpected. Her more than full figure and maturity would lead you to think she would have a deeper, more fulsome laugh.

As I approached the pair a car pulled up beside them. The driver leaned in their direction and I saw Tulsa point to herself, then say something to Susan before leaning down, resting both elbows on the passenger doors open windowsill. After a few words, a bargain was struck and she got in, wagging the middle finger of her left hand at me as she went by.

I did not take offence, I never do; I minister to these poor girls only with their consent, which is rare. Except in winter; in the winter they are more than glad to see me, clustering around me in their barely there outfits as I dole out hot sugary cocoa from a pair of Thermos I carry in a backpack. If there is one thing I have learned in all my years of trying to save their souls it is this, these poor women, to a one, are irredeemably sweet-toothed.

The blonde girl watched me warily from her post as I approached, making no attempt to flee as the others had, I smiled at her and said, “Hello,” the scent of coconut butter wafting off her, filling my nostrils.

“Hello,” she replied, a little colour rising in her cheeks.

“My name is Saul,” I said, holding out one hand, “Reverend Saul, perhaps the other girls mentioned me.”

She reached for my hand, not it seemed to shake it, but knuckles up, like a lady in a movie, “Susan,” she said in reply.

I cannot say what possessed me, but instead of shaking her hand I took it daintily in mine, raised it to my lips. “Enchante,” I murmured, kissing the back of it, oddly pleased at seeing the blush spread from her cheeks to her neck as I released it.

“How old are you Susan?” I asked.

She dropped her gaze, “Nineteen,” she answered quietly, then raised her eyes to meet mine. I think perhaps my scepticism was written on my features, because she repeated her answer; louder, more defiantly this time, “Nineteen.”

I was about to apologise when Susan glanced past me to my right. She opened her mouth, perhaps to warn me, but too late; I felt something hard slam into my right kidney, followed by a series of expletives uttered by a voice I knew only too well.

As I went to my knees, my lower right side a ball of agony, Albert continued his diatribe, “I told you to keep away from my girls you god-botherin motherfucker, didn’t I tell you?” He grabbed me by the hair, pulling me to my feet. Still in some distress, I staggered as I rose.

I had four inches and ten pounds on him; but he had a ton of attitude on me. Albert grabbed me by the shirt, pushing me backwards into the road, “What do I gotta do to get it through that thick skull a yours,” he snarled.

As we stumbled out into the traffic, me hobbled by the pain in my side, trying to keep my balance, him unencumbered by his lack of stature, a car jerked to a halt beside us. Perhaps some instinct kept the driver`s hand from the horn, who can say? What I can say is that if he had been so intemperate Albert would surely have rounded on him, and there is no knowing how that might have resolved itself. Instead we made the far side of the road unimpeded, coming to a stop only when we reached the railing that bounded the river, some part of the rail contacting my throbbing back, sending out fresh pain in radiating crippling waves.

“You wanna go for a fuckin swim Rev?” he asked, his breath as foul as his language. In the years that we had crossed paths his breath had stunk forever of Garlic, as if he chewed cloves of it, though I had never seen one in his mouth. Wrinkling my nose I turned my face away; he slapped me in the face then, hard, reminding me of my missing teeth. The first time we`d met he`d broken my nose, another time he`d knocked out two of my teeth, promising me then that someday I`d, “Sleep with the fishes.” I suspected he watched too many gangster movies, but still for safeties sake, I leaned forward, using my weight advantage this one time.

Over his shoulder I saw a red BMW, a large one; maybe a seven series, pull up. Susan leaned down, her hair a golden halo visible through the open windows, there was a brief conversation, then she was climbing in, neither she nor the driver giving us a glance.

Without warning Albert let go of my shirt, as if knowing by some psychic signal that Susan was gone, beyond my reach for now. He feinted, dropping his right shoulder as if to punch me, laughing when I flinched, then strolled away whistling, hands in his pockets, a man without a care in the world.
When he had gone, I recrossed the road, retrieved my bible, wiped the dust from it, and, one hand pressed against the place where my back ached, slowly made my way home.

It was five nights later that I saw Susan for the second time. It was a sweltering muggy night, as high summer nights sometimes are in the city. I had my pair of flasks with me; they were filled not with steaming cocoa, but ice-tea, well sugared of course, with a hint of lemon, and more, much more, than a hint of vodka; it pays to know your congregation.

She was standing with her back to me, still in the same dress, though it looked shabbier than it had that first night, and again I felt my breathing become a laboured thing. Tulsa who had been deep in conversation with her, glanced my way, which must have alerted Susan to my presence, for she turned to face me before I had an opportunity to clear my throat.

“Oh,” she said, “Reverend Saul.”

It was then that I saw the long thin bruises, turning purple now, on either side of her neck, they looked about the width of a man`s fingers. She noticed where my gaze had fallen, and fussed at the collars of her dress, pulling them up in an effort to conceal her shame.
I looked away, not wishing to cause her any further embarrassment.
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