This is an edited version of the story I read at the Welsh Short Story Network’s event in Chapter Arts, Cardiff, on June 21st. It also features in my collection ‘Dead Flowers and Other Stories” published by Opening Chapter in November 2014.
HIS NAME WAS SAL
He was an American, a couple of years older than me. I was sixteen.
In the summer of 1968, I hitched from my dreary Welsh town to see Pink Floyd in Hyde Park. After a long, scary, but interesting journey, involving a lift in an abused Transit with a stoned roadie, I arrived in the park after midnight the night before the concert and leaned against a tree to rest and absorb the vibes. Excited fellow travellers buzzed around me looking for somewhere safe to crash. Despite my exhaustion I felt I was part of something significant, a revolution was taking place and I was at the heart of it.
A pair of London louts tried to sell me a lump of dodgy-looking dope, it was probably chewing tobacco, or henna, or something. They looked shifty and vicious, like sly hyenas. I felt exposed and alone, so I shook my head and turned my back on them. I was skint anyway. The big one pushed me against the tree and pulled a knife. A young man in a black leather jacket stopped and stared narrowly at them. His hair was slicked back like James Dean, his face smooth and unreadable. The dealers sized him up, thought the better of it, and swaggered away into the gloom.
That’s how I met Sal.
Sal had survived the streets of LA, and wasn’t afraid of Hyde Park lowlifes. He’d lived on his finely-tuned wits, trekked solo all over America, all over the world. He’d wielded bigger knives, and guns, real guns, with real bullets. He wasn’t on the run as such, just travelling to take the heat out of things. We stayed together that night, huddled at the foot of that tree, smoking joints that Sal rolled from his own stash of Mexican grass. The next day we cruised through the crowds, the music a mere background to our conversation – the gathering of colourful humanity its wallpaper. Sal returned with me to my town in the sticks, to lie low, he said, though I didn’t really know who he was hiding from, or why.
There was something about Sal I recognised immediately, something real – he was the most palpably true person I’d ever met. We were best friends instantly. He became more of a brother to me than my real brothers. We were as close to each other as it was possible for either of us to be close to anyone. He found a cheap room and hung around for a few months, working the night shift in a bakery for cash to pay the rent. He was still there at Christmas.
A skinny freckled Scottish girl, Sandy, had blagged some Ephedrine from a pharmacy – it was easier to do that then. She told us she’d made up some story about asthma and was given a batch of the small white pills, although I think she really was asthmatic, if the way she struggled for breath was anything to go by. She’d also procured several bottles of a cough medicine laced with morphine, and more than a few packets of travel sickness pills that contained hyoscine, an anaesthetic drug. A Christmas treat, she said.
I went out after lunch and walked into town. I didn’t like to think of Sal alone on Christmas Day in his tiny bedsit, in a place he barely knew that didn’t understand him. We sat on the edge of his bed and smoked a joint. He told me about his brother, in prison in California, for murder, but he was innocent, Sal said. He’d been framed by the cops and the feds, and one day Sal was going to prove it. I believed him.
Sal was agitated, constantly pausing to listen to some real or imagined threat, or peering through the grubby net curtains into the empty street below.
“What’s up Sal?” I asked.
“Nada,” he said. “It’s all cool. Come on man, let’s split, let’s go find some action.”
We slid around the deserted streets and spotted Sandy slumped in the doorway outside Woolworth’s. She looked tired and dejected. We decamped to the park and occupied a bench overlooking the football field. Sandy shared the Ephedrine with us. We got excitable and animated. There was a large pond at the other end of the field; we bounced across the thawing grass and picked our way through the snow-patched reeds around the water, smoking joints of Lebanese Red until we tired of our heavy sodden shoes. We squelched back across the field. Sandy babbled about the hard gangs of Glasgow. Sal perched on the edge of the bench, nodding rapidly. I said I’d better get home, my family would be wondering where I’d got to, on Christmas Day.
I was almost delirious with the drugs when I got back in but the rest of my family were too drunk to notice, or to care. My mother was drinking sherry and staring blankly at the television without taking it in. She deserved it, after all the work she’d put into preparing the meal, and into generally looking after the family, as she often reminded us. My father was slumped in his chair, snoring, a half drunk glass of beer still clamped in his hand. He worked long enough and hard enough the rest of the year so that we could afford stuff like Christmas so I suppose it was his due. My brother Ken, even though he was only fourteen, was also drunk and lying on his bed upstairs, groaning. He deserved that too. My older brother Tom was out, as usual, probably sniffing around after the Johnson sisters in the top site.
There wasn’t any edible dinner left over so I stole half of the large fruit cake that was sitting untouched on the sideboard, it would never get eaten anyway; it never was, unless it was forced on reluctant visitors, already over-stuffed with their own Christmas.
I helped myself to a pint bottle of bitter from the slab in the pantry and gulped it on a slow walk back to town to catch up with Sal and Sandy. It hadn’t been much of a Christmas for them so far. Sandy was still in the park, bouncing on the bench, rambling obsessively about corrupt police and crazy American bastards. She ignored me when I asked her where Sal was, just kept on ranting, her eyes bulging like a maniac. I gave her a hunk of cake. She stared at it with a puzzled look and put it on the bench next to her. She handed me a bottle of cough medicine. I glugged half of it against the best efforts of my stomach to puke it up – it would be worth it when the morphine kicked in. I tapped a clutch of the travel sickness pills into the palm of my hand, threw them into my mouth, and washed them down with another slug of the cough medicine.
Sal wasn’t in his bedsit so I started the walk home. The drugs kicked in, the world dissolved, and I thought it best, despite the stupor my family was in, to head back to the park instead, and wait until I came down. Sandy had gone, the cake was still on the bench, untouched, maybe the ducks would appreciate it. I stuttered through the melting snow across the sodden field towards the pond.
There was a body lying face down at the water’s edge – it was Sal.
His nose and mouth were in the water. I pulled his hair to lift his head and pushed him onto his back, he was heavy – a dead weight. It wasn’t Sal anymore; it was a pale corpse, already cold. I retched.
I prayed that when the retching stopped I would be completely straight and there would be no Sal lying dead at the edge of a pond in a small Welsh town. I prayed that we would be back in Hyde Park again, lying on the grass, leaning on our elbows in the sun, listening to Pink Floyd and staring down villainous drug dealers. But when I stopped it was still real. It was still Christmas Day, and Sal was still dead.
A black Labrador snuffled up to Sal’s body. I looked around. The dog’s owner was standing a few feet away, a small fat man in his fifties, his mouth open in shock. I shook my head and shrugged at him.
“Here boy,” he called to his dog.
The dog trotted back to its master.
The man looked afraid. “What happened?” he asked.
“I just found him. I don’t know.”
“Wait there,” the man said. “I’ll get someone.”
I was alone with the dead body of the best friend I’d ever had and I’d taken too many of the wrong kind of drugs, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a group of shadowy figures emerge from the water like ghouls in the mist, and glide towards me muttering murder with American accents. I covered my ears with my hands and squeezed my eyes shut tightly. I knew I could dissolve that nightmare but I also knew the real nightmare was lying next to me on the damp banks of the pond.
The police arrived in a surge of noise – someone was shaking me, saying, “He’s in shock.”
I was taken to hospital and put in a quiet room to recover. A police detective came to see me. He asked me who I was and he asked me what drugs I’d taken. I told him my name and address but not about the drugs – nor about Sandy. He didn’t seem to mind.
Nothing happened for two weeks. Sandy disappeared, I never saw her again. Sal’s sister came over from America to claim his body. The police gave her my address and she called to see me before she left. She wanted to know how her brother had spent the last days of his life.
She told me that Sal had always been a troubled and troublesome child. His parents had disowned him and sent him over the pond to live with his aunt in Bristol just to get him out of their sight. He went AWOL from his aunt’s after a few weeks and they hadn’t heard from him since. As far as she knew, he’d never been involved in any gangs or with any guns. He didn’t have a brother. His name wasn’t even Sal; that was just a name he’d taken from a book. His real name was Jack.
It wasn’t a knife or a bullet; it wasn’t the gangs of LA, or Glasgow. In the end, what brought Sal down was the poison inside himself, intensified by a cruel world and weak parents. For all his bravado and bluster, Sal was just a lost little boy who needed love.
He may have been a loser called Jack to his family, but he’ll always be Sal to me, and forty-odd years later, he’s still the best and truest friend I’ve ever had.