Alan lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He has not been published in Gutter Magazine, New Writing Scotland or in the Edinburgh Review. He is not a recipient of a New Writers' Bursary from the Scottish Book Trust, and he has certainly never performed his work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. His debut short story collection will not be published, by anyone, anytime soon. Say hello at alangillespie.wordpress.com
Benny calls out whether someone's walking past or not. 'Bigishoooo! Err yer bigishoo.' He stands nestled beneath a sandstone archway, and winks at me, his magazines held out like a dowsing rod. 'Ta very much, Godblessye hen.' 'Much obliged sur, huvagoodday.'
His clothes are shabby but clean, frayed cuffs and wet shoes. Four magazines sell between 8am and 10am, earning him six pounds and eighty pence. The street falls quiet after the morning rush of office and shop workers. You're not supposed to move around, he tells me, but you have to keep moving. There's another patch near the train station that should get some traffic.
I'm shadowing Benny for the day. Tomorrow it'll be just me, with my own bundle of magazines and a laminated tag around my neck. He's showing me the ropes by which I'll be tied. You need to be careful, he tells me. Can't trespass on someone else's territory. Can't stand on another man's toes. He's not specific about consequences.
The magazines are a precious commodity, Benny says. They're a form of currency. Take care nobody pinches them. And if someone's got something you want, swap them for it. He winks again.
'Bigishoooo! Err yer bigishoo.' Benny bows and scrapes when someone pushes a cold coin into his palm. 'Yass,' he says, counting the metal discs. 'Atz enuff furra bed the night.'
One of the hotels will take him for a few pounds. I've got something sorted as well, free temporary accommodation at Hope House. They don't let you stay long. I'm supposed to get my name on a housing list. It's good for their statistics, apparently. A single bed for a single night, and then I'll be out on my own.
That night, stuck in limbo between sleep and nausea, I wrap my legs around the sheets and imagine I'm far away, with Harold again.
Harold always had the best taste in beds. It was impeccable.
I close my eyes and we're chug chug chugging, aboard the Orient Express, wrapped up in embroidered quilts that scratch my skin. Or we're spread out in a four poster at the Ritz, giggling like schoolchildren, eating purple cherries with dollops of yoghurt. Or we're sinking into waterbeds and gripping wrought-iron frames, and roll, roll, rolling through the night on an Arctic cruise. Harold was wonderful. He told me bed was like a stage. I always thought it was more like a canvas.
Not that we spent all our time together on a mattress. There were black tie evenings in art galleries, VIP rooms in cocktail bars, rooftop terraces sipping Hendrick's and tonic with cubes of cucumber, driving his Porsche in Italian shoes, splattering each other with paint in my studio, cufflink shopping at Tiffany's, first class flights, my penthouse apartment, walk-in wardrobe, balcony overlooking the river. Harold always left the rent money for me in an envelope on the dressing table.
I fall asleep on a stiff board in Hope House, wishing that he had never died.
'Big Issue! Who wants a Big Issue?'
I don't have Benny's talent for salesmanship yet. He comes along to say hello, on his way to a promising patch outside the new shopping centre. He tells me to relax. Tells me I'll get used to the life after a day or two.
Tells me to stay away from the shopping centre or he'll do me.
I become invisible. Men walk past, smelling divine, ignoring me completely. Mothers push prams, facing straight ahead while their children stare. I sell one magazine, to a pensioner. She drops two grubby coins into my hand and I pat my pockets, even though I know I don't have change. Not to worry, she says. Just you keep it, son. I thank her very much and resist the urge to throw up. The way she looks at me, the way she looks through me, makes me loathe myself.
'Bigishoooo! Get your bigishoo.'
I'm getting the hang of this. At least I think so. Two more copies sell.
Nobody takes their change, but I should get some from the supermarket, just in case. Although that means I'll have to buy something.
When Harold died, I had some money to keep me going. When it began running out, I would shop at night, buying all the produce that was going off, at a reduced price. And when I could no longer afford that, I went round the back, through the bins. Peeling open stale sandwiches. Relieved and revolted.
I haven't really lived since Harold died. We were together for years. He knew every fancy and fetish and I was never disappointed. He spoiled me, of course he did. Because I loved him and he loved me. But when he died, all the wealth and comfort and security went to his wife.
I wasn't welcome at the funeral. I wasn't mentioned in the will. I didn't get a penny. Friends, who'd known all about us, feigned ignorance and sidled up to her. Wiped her tears, held her hand, accepted her invitations to supper. If she ever knew about her husband's secret boyfriend she never let on. Harold never mentioned it, but I'm sure she knew. She must have.
When I was evicted from my flat, three months in arrears with the rent, it had been transformed. All the clean lines were gone. The minimalist, Swedish decor had been covered up. Blame it on artistic temperament.
I consider it my masterpiece. My homage to Harold. Onto every surface of the home he'd kept me in went layer upon layer of thick oil paint, swabbed on in dank tan and cold slate and sooty bistre, a whirlpool of everything I couldn't say. Onto the wooden floorboards I painted a swirling, turbulent vortex. The ceiling became a stratus of foggy cloud, like bottled exhaust fumes. I made the bath sheer black. Likewise the toilet.
I did the windows last: plum and cobalt, crimson and carrot, in thin brushstrokes portraying broken glass and dead sunflowers. Stroke by stroke the daylight faded, replaced by gloom, backlit like stained glass.
If this seems dramatic, well, I'm a painter. Always have been. A writer might have tortured himself with obscure verses. A musician might have sung ballads with tears in his eyes. It was just my way of mourning. Of trying to mourn.
'Bigishoooo! Get yer bigishoo.'
It's raining and I've ended up in a rotten spot with no shelter. I'm scared to move because I've been warned, by a chin-scarred thug, that if he sees me near his plot again he'll have me. He's claimed the stairs outside the Church of Scotland for his own, been there seven years, find your own bloody patch. His clothes are new and his cheeks are plump. A middle-class tramp, of all things. I bet they bring him tea and polythene bags full of old stuff every Sunday.
My feet are sodden, breached by the rain, and my magazines wrinkle up. I wrap them in cellophane but it's useless. The drizzle's getting everywhere.
A policeman stops to check my ID. He's clean shaven, clothes neatly pressed. Big black shoes jutting out from flawless trousers. I want to cling onto his arm and bury my face in his chest. Want him to hold me. Someone tried to sell me drugs last night, I tell him. He's not interested. Maybe if I steal his hat he'll arrest me, take me in the back of his van, throw me in a cell for the night. But he's marching away, long legs, square shoulders.
The people walking past stare from beneath umbrellas. Eyes shifting over me. They're wondering how someone manages to ruin their life so much they end up like this. Wondering what I did to deserve it. Wondering where I'll sleep tonight.
I wonder too.
It's all my own fault. That's the worst thing. This was avoidable. I just wasn't looking where I was going.
After I graduated from art school I sold a few paintings. My debts were deep but a list of contacts kept me ticking over for a while. I made money from time to time. When I sold a piece I spoiled myself until the funds ran out, spending months in Paris, in Athens, in Venice.
I got by on youth and enthusiasm and bursaries and the contents of other men's pockets. And then I met Harold. It was all different with him.
I told him I was his and that I wasn't going anywhere. He told me he was mine and that he would give me anything. And then Harold died.
It's been years since I painted anything worth more than the cost of the materials. I've no pension. No income. No assets. My buttocks have sunk down low and my arms have deflated. I used to be a package, a catch, a trophy boyfriend. I never thought the day would come when I couldn't cling onto the coattails of a repressed homosexual with money.
You'd be amazed how many men are married with children, driving the Land Rover, holidaying in Mallorca, celebrating anniversaries, double dating, dinner partying, sleeping in queen sized marital beds, all the time denying their instinct. And it's because gay relationships just aren't the same. It's cruel but they don't have that gravitas; not in the real world, where prejudice and phobias are much more commonplace than the BBC lets you believe.
In a gay relationship you rely on each other as best friends as well as partners. You've got yourself a friend/lover/partner hybrid. And when he's gone, you're isolated. Alone. Fucked.
The magazines aren't shifting and my nose starts to drip. I pack it in and go to the underground station. For the price of a single journey I can stay down there for hours, ten feet under, going round and round the wet city in circles.
I flick through one of my magazines on the train, trying to blend in. Trying to look like a normal man who's just bought one, rather than an outsider trying to hawk them off. One page catches my eye. It's the kind of article I once would've read from back to front.
Says there's a Van Gogh exhibit opening at Kelvingrove museum. The Starry Night's going up for all of Glasgow to see. Says it's worth a hundred million dollars.
That much for one painting. It baffles me. Makes me question all those years when I stuck my nose up in the air and ooh-ed and aah-ed at things hanging from walls.
The train stops at a station. It's late afternoon and people are going home, thousands of clockwork mice following their routine. A girl sits next to me, long legs crossed, a defensive pose. I glance at her perfect skin, can't stop looking. I'm making her uncomfortable.
Soon it'll be dark and I'll be alone in the streets. I think that maybe I'll go along to the Van Gogh exhibition this weekend.
Maybe I'll run into one of the old crowd. One of Harold's business associates. A friendly face. They might want to take me for a coffee. Maybe lunch. Who knows where it could lead?
The girl gets off at her stop. I wonder who's waiting for her on the other side of the barriers. The pleats of her skirt brush my hand.
I've ended up right on the fucking lip of society. I'm clinging on with fingertips but I've seen people who've been chewed up and spat out the system altogether. No passport, no P60, no state pension. Nameless people that can't even get an NHS doctor. Some receptionist saying 'What's yer name?' and 'What's yer address?' and that's that.
Can't get a house if you've no job. Can't get a job if you've no address.
Best place to end up is jail. You're still outwith society, removed from the civilised structure, but at least you get a roof. At least you're not a nothing.
When I leave the underground station it's night. In a supermarket I buy Grant's gin and value tonic water. No food. I walk over the Clyde, on a footbridge, swigging from both bottles one after the other. It slips down my throat like heartburn.
Shuffling footsteps to my left and Benny appears, of all people, crazy-eyed and unsteady. 'Magine findin yoo here,' he says. 'Howzitgaun? A wee drink wid be magic, ta.'
I never noticed before, but he's toothless. Pink gums between dark chops. He looks at me, scuffs his feet. Sips from the bottle and looks up and down the road. No traffic. Sips again. Kicks me in the balls and rips the scarf from my neck, twisting me to the ground. Then he's running away, scarf flapping loose and gin slopping from the bottle, over his knuckles, into the gutter.
I hold onto the railing and pull myself up. Below, the water is inky, churning currents and frothy spit, reflected streetlights dancing in the dark. I lean over the edge, see my breath catching and crystallising in the cold air. I close my eyes. Harold, I whisper. Harold, for fuck's sake.
The Starry Night's twenty nine inches by thirty six. Big. But not too big. I know every corner of the Kelvingrove, every doorway and crevice. Used to go there all the time. Exhibitions, opening nights, fundraisers. Even a few weddings- me and Harold sitting side by side in the pews, hands folded across our laps, ankles intertwined.
Prison's not a place someone normally desires to be. And there's people would rather live in a bin than behind bars, but that's them, not me. I'm not used to this. I hate the cold. I miss walls and roofs. I miss interaction. If it's a question of survival, sheer survival, some people can handle living on the streets but I can't. I need the system. I need society, even if it's one running behind prison walls.
Getting in the door's the hard part, I reckon. Once you're inside it you can kick up a fuss, cause some trouble and make sure you're not released. But how to get there in the first place? I can't murder. I couldn't handle being in a wing surrounded by killers. Besides, it seems unnecessary.
Theft it is then. And what better to steal than the medium I've spent my life pretending to appreciate, pretending to create? A thousand and forty four square inches of canvas and oil. A hundred million dollars. Dutch fingerprints melted into the sky. That's the curious thing about paint: you use it wet, have a slim window of time to mould and spread it just the way you like and then it sets, and it's solid, for the rest of your days and many more besides.
You need to get things in order when you've got the chance, because if you leave it too long the game's a bogey.
So I'll steal the painting, get caught, and go to jail. Or steal the painting, get away with it, and sell it. I can't really see a downside to either option.
I pick a cigarette butt out the bin and light up. Feel the smoke curling down my throat. Walk up and down the path alongside the museum. It's closing time. The lights inside flicker and fade. The staff leave. Someone's left a window open.
The sky's dark blue and the lights from the city drown out the stars, swirling about in a yellow-orange haze. The university tower's bold against the backdrop, reaching up and out with boughs of brick. Rain falls, oily and black.
'Bigishoooo! Err yer bigishoo.' But there's nobody around. And even if there was, I'm invisible, remember? I merge into the shadows and slip inside.