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Short story: “Hartshill” by Joe Stretch

The English writer tells a story of love, lust, footballers, public transport and k.d. lang

Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

It was a tiring commute from Stockport, where I lived, to Keele University, where I worked as a technician in the School of Life Sciences. I was reliant on a bus service that ran between Keele and Stoke train station, via Hartshill. 

In the evening the trains were often delayed. There was a hotel bar I sometimes drank in. If I was smoking I might do so in the car park. Occasionally I’d go to the café on platform 1, as I did on a wet Friday in April last year.

An elegant young woman sat alone at a table by the magazines. She wore a grey Lycra maxi dress and a leather biker jacket draped over her shoulders. I willed her to look up so I could see her face, but she didn’t, so I turned away. I rested my hands on the counter and watched a barista froth milk.

An elderly man entered the café pushing a teenage boy in a wheelchair. He positioned him at the table nearest to the elegant young woman. Muffin? he said, crouching slightly. Muffin and coffee, how does that sound? The boy yelped and threw a punch. No, the elderly man said. No, we don’t punch, do we? 

Beside me was a man with a spiky Afro; I recognised him. He was a famous footballer. Someone’s name was tattooed on his neck. His T-shirt had oriental slogans on it. Having paid for his drinks, he joined the elegant young woman at her table.  

I think - I’m what the man who hasn’t lived looks like.

The elderly man approached the counter. The boy waited in his wheelchair. He yelped again, louder this time. Then, in what seemed like a moment of dreadful frustration, he bit down hard on his own arm. Don’t do that, the elderly man called across the café. No biting.

I sat at a table by the window and looked at my phone. The elegant young woman put her phone on the table, sipped her coffee, picked up her phone and frowned. Her face was long and her eyes were brown and wide. A magazine cover drew her attention. She spoke to the footballer and he muttered something. I didn’t hear what he said, but because she was facing me, I heard her reply. She asked him, Why do you hate her so much? 

The elderly man broke off a morsel of muffin and handed it to the boy. Nothing seemed to pacify him though. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t, so he bit himself again. The elegant young woman watched. She looked at her phone and I looked at mine. No biting, the elderly man said. No biting.

Music played on ceiling speakers and joined the throttling sound of milk being frothed and the dental drill of coffee beans grinding. A voice advised us to keep our luggage with us at all times, alerted us to platform changes and apologised for the late-running northbound trains. 

Slowly, the elderly man said. Let’s take our time, yeah?

I’d been eating in a chicken restaurant the week before. I left my table to gather napkins and condiments and someone stole my phone. I located it using the “Find My Phone” app on my laptop. A little green circle appeared on a street in Stoke-on-Trent and I was filled with admiration for technology’s achievement. I considered visiting the street at night to shout warnings at the dark houses. But of course I didn’t.

Slowly. Isn’t that nice, eh, nice muffin? Slowly.

Biting himself was the only way the boy could muffle the howl that kept rising in him. Eventually, the elderly man stood and gripped the handles of the wheelchair. As they left the café the boy thrashed from side to side and craned his neck to try and see behind his chair. I could still hear his yelps once he was out on the platform and the connecting door had shut. 

When I try to write “I’ll” on my new phone the predictive text function intervenes and writes “K.d Lang”. It happens when, having typed “I”, I don’t hold down the ‘full stop’ button long enough for the phone to realise I want an apostrophe. Then I type “ll” and there it is, on the screen: “K.d Lang”.

Neither the elegant young woman nor the footballer spoke. They used their phones. I smoothed my empty crisp packet with the heel of my hand. I brought the phone to my lips and whispered the footballer’s name, then whispered the word “girlfriend”. The search took just a few seconds. 

I learnt her name. I learnt they were on their way to London. I learnt the trip was to be a mixture of work and pleasure. She had some business meetings to attend and later that evening, I learnt, they planned to eat at Nobu, a restaurant I consider glamorous. I learnt she’d grown up in Hartshill in Stoke-on-Trent. I knew the area from my daily bus journey. I’d cycled up Hartshill many times. It was a slow, plodding hill and it punished me the winter I bought a bike, the winter mum fell ill and I took in a cat from the refuge. There’s a cheap-looking brothel at the foot of Hartshill called Divas Delights. I learnt that she’d studied Geography at Keele University, as I had. I learnt that surgery had taken her bra size to a G cup. I learnt she was twenty-six. I learnt the footballer wasn’t quite my age; he was a year younger and had a relative’s face tattooed on his back. He was, I learnt, currently banned from driving and maybe that’s what led them to the train station that day. I learnt that, naked, her breasts looked too big for her fragile frame. I learnt she appeared regularly on a phone-in sex channel called Babestation. I learnt that her nickname at school was “Grapefruit” and that her mother was a nurse. I learnt that she wasn’t his girlfriend but his wife and that their wedding was a lavish ceremony that had taken place earlier that year. I learnt that someone calling themselves PinDevil had written “The things I would do to her tits” beneath one of her striptease videos. I learnt that this comment had been “liked” by twenty-one people.

She reached for her coffee, paused, stroked the screen of her phone, sipped. 

The London train’s imminent arrival was announced. She stood, yawned, and when she arched her back her breasts swelled inside her grey dress. She fed her arms into the arms of her leather jacket and flicked her ponytail back over the collar. She gathered her handbag, a holdall and took her coffee with her to the platform. The footballer followed. Out on the platform, the boy in the wheelchair started to yelp again. The door closed, but I could hear him. And when he fell silent I knew why. I looked at my phone. I stood and put on my rucksack. I looked at their empty table and considered holding my face against the seat of her chair. 

Most days I felt like I was carrying round dozens of myself. Riding on the bus, climbing Hartshill, I sometimes contemplated speaking to the students using the third person plural. If one asked for my assistance on some technical issue, I’d say, “They’re sorry, but they can’t help you.” On holiday, as a child, after snorkelling, I’d lift my mask and take a moment to locate mum on the beach. The password to her laptop is my name, I finally discovered. There’s a profile on a dating site I’ve been trying to delete, but it keeps coming back. 

I went to wait on the northbound platform. I checked my phone. I paced the stretch of the platform where the unreserved coach comes to a stop. I walked out into the car park and looked out across the low-rise metropolis of Stoke-on-Trent. It looked like something’s shadow. 

K.d Lang find you and K.d Lang come round.

That night I sat up till late in a green armchair that the cat has pretty much destroyed. Shortly before 11pm the elegant young woman posted a photograph on the internet of herself and her husband. She called it, “London dinner and cocktails xx.” She’d taken it herself. I drank tea and watched as the photograph was shared and favourited by several people. It saddened me that the replies to her photograph, when they were posted, were cruel about her appearance, or listlessly ironic, or written in a fragile, loveless English. I wondered if she bothered to read such things and whether the sour reception upset her. What do you think the boy was trying to say? I wanted to type. But of course I didn’t. 

In the world of breasts the opposite of “fake” isn’t “real”, but “natural”. Mum once told me that the fact was a seventeenth century invention. I’m what the man who hasn’t lived looks like, I think. I keep going to work then returning. Last month I binned the elegant young woman’s calendar in the Life Sciences kitchen. A cleaner dragged it out and because of its condition there was an investigation. Everyone assumed it was a student. 

I left the train at Stockport and walked home, trailing two teenage boys, listening to their talk. One carried a clinking bag of bottled cider. Their broad shoulders gave their legs a spindly, distrophied look. 

I think - why do you hate her so much?

I used the app to check the whereabouts of my old phone. I learnt it was nowhere. Physically it still existed, somewhere, but spiritually I’d killed it. I’ve been staying up late, tongue in my mouth, missed calls from the crematorium. I see her sleeping in her old Hartshill bed. I see the doorway of Divas Delights wedged open by bodies. They’re fine, they say.