Fiction: One Sided Race

March 22, 2018 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION

Ryan Seyeau photo

 

By

E. F. S. Byrne

 

 

 

The man with no legs raced to his post. Sand whipped into a baby storm turning into the morning breeze before fading into the head of a midday sun, the still haze of paralysing temperatures, omnipresent pressure of degree upon degree with no respite. The man with no legs was always the first up in the mornings, dashing through the city streets to get his stall in order for the earliest of stragglers. He had clients who snuck in on their way home, others just facing out to work. They could count on his discretion. That’s what kept his business going. An invalid was always a safe pair of hands; people trusted somebody who they thought would never go far.

 

For a man with no legs he could move. Everybody said the same. Nobody knew where he lived, where he slept. On his money he would joke. People laughed without realising that was exactly what he did. Humour is a devious friend, a double edged gift you have to be careful not to fall on.

 

With the dying embers of a vaguely cold night breeze, the man with no legs urged a glow from the flames to light the day ahead; the man with no legs built his outpost, that corner everybody knew, smack in the centre of the city. Millions heaved through a spider web network of surrounding streets, fanning out into suburbs, scrawling away into shanty towns but he remained their focal point. Best tea in town. Everybody knew it. The man with no legs knew it. Nothing else.

 

Competitors tried sweet cakes to entice customers away. With no legs what he could produce was limited so the man with no legs added extra sugar, extra strength: and that is as sweet as it gets he proffered. People lapped it up. Hot glasses steaming in the heat, refreshing mint burning the insides as their skin beat itself black and blue in the dense, unrelenting blinding heat realigning off the dunes. Spice whiffed around corners, camel dung and stale piss vomited underneath, the churn of the mosquito crawling river hushed far down the street, the rustling upheaval of people jostling in time to everyday demands, fights, restrictive struggles to keep food down, families at bay, money lining what pockets they could afford to darn, all hovered in the air above the man with no legs and his stall. For a second, a few scrambled minutes, in the midst of human panic, here they could rest for a second, take a stance, grasp a fistful of straws, sense enlightenment in a handful of hot tea, fumes of black tobacco which the man with no legs offered free to his special clients, the ones who spread the word, kept business alive, the wheels in motion: when you have no legs, any kind of transport is good value.

 

Every morning the man with no legs ran out of hiding and had his wares ready to go before the first lights went dim and the lorries of the night ground to a halt with their early morning deliveries. The man with no legs propped himself up on a tall stool, kettles, sugar, glasses on hand, tobacco safely under his bum. He paid a boy to bring water and wood. Everything else he did himself. Five seats were all he allowed. There was standing room a plenty, pushing out onto the street between the camels, the smoke of a dying truck, the snarl of a Landover overturning with ammunition, a flat back hurdling under the weight of an anti-aircraft launcher. Bikes squeaking, cars honking, rubber burning, dogs barking, sniffing, biting superciliously at the heels of the unknown soldiers who swarmed around under the weight of weapons twice their size, and age. A slap on the back, quick chat to keep up to date, set the atomic clock to zero, brush a palm, spawn a theory, do a quick deal before somebody wanted a share.

 

Only the treasured few were allowed the five low stools in the semicircle to his left, three legs each, made for milking cows. That’s where the real business was done. People stood and nodded, watching carefully the play out of faces, well ironed gowns, perfectly rapped turbans that huddled, sipped, linked spoons carefully under index finger as the liquid faded down the glass inside, lunging out to burn throats and hoarsen voices. Muttering, nodding, the man with no legs fed their thoughts, keeping them oiled. Mutinies, revolts, conspiracies, betrayals and occasionally loyalties split, and later guts spilt from the semicircle. The man with no legs never took sides; but he knew how to wean, tease, edge fragments together to make a whole; and afterwards the rewards graced his palm in an endless stream of welcoming gratitude. The man with no legs was the perfect go-between.

 

It hadn’t always been as easy. It had taken time. The man with no hands had been there first. The man with no legs could never understand how he dared: how could you serve a decent cup of tea with no hands? He was soon buried, right there beneath the stall. A truck reversed over him. That’s what they all said. That’s what he man with no legs said. That was good enough for anyone.

 

He had the sign up this morning. A sharp stick stuck into the hard earth, a little twitch of blue rag tied to the top, fluttering painfully in the scalding air that counted as a breeze at that time of the morning. “Reserved” was basically what it meant. Those five stools were kept to warm special arses today. That would ensure a big crowd. He hovered about getting it all ready. Three types of sugar, an array of tea, mint, normal and bitter puer. Glasses splattered with water, looking clear or at lease vaguely cleaned. Nobody expected more from a man with no legs.

 

The General sat on his left. He waved four lieutenants to the low stools beside him. The man with no legs made sure he didn’t look impressed. They always came. Captains, generals, lieutenants, lost, disturbed, ambitious, brave and foolish, even an admiral which, for a country with no coast, was an achievement in itself.

 

The man with no legs served and observed, listened and occasionally muttered a reply, subtle suggestion, a hint of approval, an indication of a slightly more profitable approach, a back route.

 

They left before the heat rose. The crowd grew all morning as they waited for the man with no legs to explain, clarify, indicate, profuse. Years of listening had given him the ability to summarise situations, movements, opportunities, in a couple of carefully focused thoughts which, when repeated carefully, slowly, simply enough over the course of a week or so, could be relied upon to direct a nation. It became difficult to rule the roost without having warmed your behind on the man with no legs stools and burn your tongue with his hottest, sharpest, sweetest teas.

 

Maybe it was age, maybe the heat finally got to him, but this time around the man with no legs missed something that morning. Head bowed to the General, he hadn’t noticed the Captain to his left, chin to his chest, wrapped in a turban that covered his nose and floated around his throat like a serpent as he made room for his lips to pucker the tea glass, wince in the sweetness, relax as it hit his stomach. Eyes danced, venom splayed.

 

That Captain had the General killed within the month. He had masses slaughtered. The man with no legs had survived coups before. That was part of the job: nobody thought a man with no legs would take risks he could never run away from. They had always trusted him up to now, used his graces, his way with tea and the people. The Captain left nothing to chance. The man with no legs had his arms cut off and his mouth sewed shut. Silent, limbless, they placed him on one of his own stools, sulking above his tea glasses as they cooled, their stains beginning to glow in the rising sun. The crowd fanned out to watch, then dispersed into the distance, down the safety of dark back alleys, leaving the man with no limbs squatting alone, dumb, putrefying in the midday sun. In their semi-circle below, his stools stood on guard, powerless praetorian warriors as he rotted away.

 

The captain knew what absolute power required. This one was going to last a long time the man with no limbs realised. Bad for business.

 

 

 

 

 

E. F. S. Byrne

I have been working in Education in Spain for many years. With two wonderful adopted children growing up I now have more time to dedicate to my writing.

I have numerous projects on the go from novels to short stories and also my daily routine of a 100 word mini-flash story. Some examples are available on www.scottboardman.com/lit but my intention is to have efsbyrne.com up and running with more work by the end of 2017.

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