Ros Marsden’s quirky short story – a darkly nostalgic glimpse at waning fortunes and the irony of aging – captured the judges’ attention with its grim twist, earning her a berth as a finalist in the fiction category of this year’s Cowley Literary Award.
The alarm hammered. He fumbled arthritic fingers to switch off the noise, his daily 6am routine. He slept with the blinds up, watching the lights of the night sky. Sometimes he imagined he was floating among stars; already in heaven.
Dawn glistened the parkland outside his window. Each morning, he watched the dog walkers scrape pet excrement while their coiffed hounds yawned. Today a puppy dived into autumn leaves, tiger fierce.
Shuffling to the kitchen, he slotted bread in an ancient toaster. Then he saw Charlie.
Charlie lay on the floor, eyes half-closed. In last night’s drunken state he forgot to settle his companion on the couch and felt a guilty twinge.
He got Charlie to a chair. The toast popped.
“Glad you’re dieting Charlie,” he laughed. “These are my last slices.”
The toast was dry, unappetising. He chewed with care.
“You’re quiet today, Charlie. Well, I’ve got news. We’re booked for a kid’s party this afternoon. Two hours of sticky brats and botoxed mothers – our favourite audience.”
The toast in his mouth was balling and he tried to slide it through his oesophagus.
“You look stupid sitting at breakfast in a suit, Charlie. We should have put you in pyjamas.”
Charlie didn’t respond.
One lump of toast was still stuck in his throat. He bumped the table as he coughed and Charlie fell forward.
“Damn it, Charlie. Once we performed for popes, presidents, the Queen. She loved our act, wanted to meet us. She tried to shake your hand but you refused. Her laugh was like the sweetest chime. She enjoyed your rudeness.”
His companion stayed bent over.
“What would you do without me? They’d nail you in a box before you could open your mouth.”
He carried Charlie to the couch, leaning him against a pillow. A scrapbook lay on the coffee table and he reached for it.
“Remember this, Charlie? Night of Stars and we were opening act. People guffawed the moment we started and those prissy ladies looked like they’d wet their pants. Then I wouldn’t let them meet you. You would have hogged their attention so I sent you home and hobnobbed alone. No show cocktails these days – those mums won’t even offer water. Gimme special effects, Mister. Where’s me lollies? Want this, want that... greedy monsters.
“Am I boring you? Straighten up, your posture’s terrible.” He helped Charlie stretch his legs. “Those kids would tear you from limb to limb given the chance.
“It’s not my fault Charlie. It happens to lots of entertainers. Our bodies crumble. Sure, I could have stopped the fags, rejected grog, but a man’s got to have something. How did I know it would damage my voice? You’re so pure. You think your ruby smile is all the charm you need.”
He swiped Charlie across the lips, watching him slump.
“We’re nobodies, Charlie.”
Traffic hummed through the window.
He saw a cigarette on the couch and started it with a lighter from his nightshirt pocket. The smoke drifted towards Charlie.
“Sit up you has-been.”
Flick. His lighter flame moved close to Charlie’s head. “I could set your hair on fire and there’s not a thing you could do.” The flame flickered. He snapped the lighter shut.
“We were one of the first TV comedy acts. They asked you to push a button to launch a new show and you pretended it was an elevator. Everyone was in stitches.”
He helped Charlie up and examined him. “You’re fine.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. His neck was askew as if he had wrenched it.
“You haven’t aged, Charlie. You’re lucky. Good head of hair, flashy choppers. Me? I’ve got more crowns than the heads of Europe. It’s no good when actors’ teeth rot.
“We’re disintegrating stars crumbling to senescence. Two wrecks. If I hadn’t taken up with you I might have met someone, got married. But you sat in judgement if I so much as kissed a girl.”
He started pacing. He couldn’t stay still. Even the view of the park had dulled. The pup had gone and the only sign of life was a hobo pissing on a tree. A draught through the window made him shiver but yesterday’s fireplace was powdery ash. There was kindling in the basket so he threw some in the hob then poured kerosene. He let his lighter hover and with a whoosh the timber lit up.
“You don’t feel the cold, do you Charlie? Yours is a lucky old age. Not like me; crooked, creaking, tobacco-riddled, then forced to nurse and pamper you on top of everything.”
He sat beside Charlie, lifted his jacket and stroked his back. “Don’t get me wrong. I like you. But you contribute nothing to our relationship. You never shut up on stage, but at home. Aren’t you thinking something?”
Charlie turned and spoke.
“You know what you should do? Check the death notices before you get up and if you’re not listed, climb out of bed!”
Charlie’s head rolled, convulsing with laughter.
“Shut up Charlie,” he screamed. “That joke’s tired. You’re rotting, Charlie. You’re useless.”
He pulled Charlie into his arms and jerked towards the fireplace. Charlie offered no resistance.
“I’ve had you. I’m old but I could start again. I don’t need you Charlie, you’re stifling me. Goodbye, Charlie.”
With the strength of youth he flung Charlie into the hungry furnace. The hair went first. It fizzed, melting to nothing. Next was Charlie’s face. His brow transformed to a plastic molten mess and only his eyes, like two shining marbles, remained. His legs, neck and black suit fired up like matchsticks, creating a rush of warmth in the room.
He stepped back from the fireplace and bowed low.
“Thank you. You’ve been a magnificent audience. Goodnight dummy.”
He walked to his bedroom. Charlie’s remains toppled over the fireguard, creeping towards the couch with renewed hunger.
Traffic hummed through the window. The hobo zipped up and moved from the tree.