By Matthew Cook
When my uncle Lester offered me a part time job at his bookshop, he didn’t mention anything about the war with the busking man. He just said he would give me £3.50 an hour, which seemed like a fortune to me. I had misgivings – Lester was famously peculiar. But I was 13 and hungry for a taste of real life so I said yes.
It was not a shop so much as a nest. Lester lived upstairs; he wore baggy black suits, and when he spoke it always felt like he was talking to himself. He set me to work moving piles of books from shelf to shelf, carrying the prickly bargain baskets outside and in. It was dull and unnecessary, and made my arms ache. There were very few customers, and I thought about sneaking away. Only later did I realise he was testing me.
After three weeks of drudgery my uncle beckoned me into his small office and told me I was ready. He instructed me in a series of secret gestures which he said we would need for spying on customers we disliked the look of. He also told me to make a lot of noise if anyone looked too closely at the books at the back, since these were actually pieces of wood wrapped in old sleeves. From then on we spent our time smoking cigarettes and reading, or else discussing complicated acts of revenge. My enemy of choice was our next door neighbour, Mr Denning. Lester’s was the busking man.
The busking man came every other day, to sit on the wooden ledge outside our shop and play his accordian. He dressed like a teacher on holiday and seemed perfectly nice to me, but Lester loathed him intensely. His mediocrity drives away our best customers, Lester told me. If it weren’t for him we would both be rich!
I wasn’t sure how long the war had been going on, but Lester claimed he had thrown hot coffee on him once, and that the police had been called several times. I began to understand that this had always been his intention, to make me his lieutenant. We dropped old tea bags on the busking man from the upstairs window, and wrote anonymous letters to the council, demanding he be hauled away and imprisoned. My imagination ran wild with invented crimes. I absorbed Lester’s hatred so easily, turning it into something joyful and irresistible. One afternoon we painted our faces from his inkwell and chanted hexes, dancing around the office, our mouths and bellies burning from nips of brandy. We were warriors, breathless and godless, washing up in time to lock the door and say goodbye at 6pm sharp.
The night dad told me that Lester had driven his car off a bridge I ran to the shop and threw stones at that ledge where the busking man sat, until at last the wood began to chip and explode and surrender.
Matthew Cook has been a hospital porter, a script consultant and a retail snoop but is currently a freelance writer based in Liverpool. His work has appeared in The Stockholm Review, Oblong Magazine, Number Eleven and Spelk.