I had been temping at the undertakers for several weeks before the head of the firm, Feliks, finally invited Renata and I to join him for a few cocktails after work. I do not believe that Feliks particularly cared either for cocktails or for Renata and I, but he probably felt that he was obliged to observe the accustomed ceremony. The universe as a whole would be disadvantaged if cocktails did not continue to be offered fairly and with a regard for propriety.
You could tell from a glance that Feliks was a stickler for ceremony. He is a neat, colourless man, who has long established himself within the immaculate order of his office like one of those spiders whose shining web looks like pure art, or far too pretty to have been made with any practical function in mind. One could hardly picture Feliks outside of his office, but I had once bumped into him and his wife in Homebase on a Sunday morning. He had been wearing a pastel yellow jacket, he had the washed out appearance of somebody who is undertaking a circuit of a hospital garden, and I found myself gazing at him with infinite compassion. He looked in agony – as if scarcely able to hold down the lid on his soul.
I wondered where we would go for a drink and I vaguely pictured a Weatherspoons, or a bar attached to a hotel or a golf club – a place where those who would feel threatened by a real bar could convince themselves that they were comfortable and secure. Feliks told us to meet him at Greyfriars cemetery and I assumed that he would collect Renata and I and then lead us off to a bar. It transpired, however, that we would be actually drinking in the cemetery.
Feliks looked rather embarrassed and it took him a while to cough up his story. A year ago, his elder brother Jarek had visited Edinburgh and when they were returning home from a heavy night on the Grassmarket, a drunken Jarek had distressed his brother by suddenly starting to demand drugs from random passers by. Perhaps if you ask a thousand people, eventually one of them will hand over an ecstasy tablet. Policemen had flocked around Jarek like vultures, their eyes gleaming with the prospect of a large fine, but he had indignantly flapped them away. In court the next morning, Jarek had received an “ASBO” which barred him from entering any pub or bar in Edinburgh for the next three years. Unbeknown to his brother, however, Jarek had appeared in court under Feliks’ name, and it was only after Jarek had left Edinburgh that it became apparent that the prohibition technically applied to Feliks.
“I drink in here most nights,” Feliks informed us with as much dignity as possible, looking around the cemetery without affection. “My wife holds séances in the evening and, well, she needs our apartment for her customers… When they lock up the cemetery, we will have to trot over to the Meadows.”
Unzipping his rucksack, Feliks produced three tumblers, a bottle of expensive whisky, and several cans of soda, and he arranged them on the grass at our feet. I took heart from this, although I could sense that Rentata was extremely annoyed. It was now so dark that I could no longer pick out the gravestones which pressed soundlessly around us, although anybody with a glimmer of imagination could hear the velvety footsteps of the ghosts as they crept between the tombs to peep out at us. In the meagre light from the halo of Renata’s mobile phone, Feliks prepared three whiskies and sodas. It was so cold that his breath came out in huge plumes.
It was all very civilised. We stood there in the darkness and the freezing cold, helplessly clutching our whiskies and sodas. “How kind of you to join me,” Feliks remarked. “Cheers!”
Something was troubling Feliks and we soon got him to share what was on his mind. It seemed that after a few drinks, there was nowhere for Feliks to relieve himself. He could not nip into a pub, because the staff would recognise him from the police briefings and they would ask him to leave, which he always found to be very embarrassing. Feliks would instead duck discreetly into a wynd or a close, but lately the Special Constables had taken to following him, because they knew that he could always be relied upon to pay the forty pound on-the-spot fine which is given to those who are apprehended urinating in the street. However far Feliks walked from the city centre, and however apparently desolate the spot where he chose to relieve himself, it seemed that the Constables always pounced on him. In the last month alone, he had paid over five hundred pounds in fines. The Constables effectively treated him like a cash-point.
“I don’t know how they pull it off, but it’s very clever. They have these electronic notebooks and sometimes I think that they can track my whereabouts.”
“I doubt it,” I told him. “They are probably just lying in wait when you come out of the cemetery.”
“But if everybody pissed in the street, it would be like the Middle Ages,” Renata laughed angrily. I think that she just wanted to add to the poor man’s embarrassment. He looked wretched, or at least he probably would have done if we could have seen him in the dark.
I apologised to Feliks. “I explain time and time again, but she still does not understand. I mean, even Joseph Stalin did not interfere in peoples’ lives to the extent that he was trying to stop drunk men from pissing in the street. Even he knew that the Russians would draw the line at that one.”
“But I’m not drunk,” Feliks protested feebly.
I wished that I was. We had another glass of whisky out of politeness to Feliks, but Renata was virtually dancing to get back home. We left the cemetery as they were shutting it up for the night. At the gates, Feliks bade us goodnight and he set off forlornly in the direction of the Meadows, presumably to seat himself on a park bench and drink another lonely glass of whisky.
“The poor man,” I reflected. “Maybe I should go with him?”
“And leave me to walk home by myself?” Renata was outraged.
“You must be able to find your way home by now. But hang on! Look! Those two policemen were waiting for him behind those bins!”
“Good!” Renata’s nose was in the air. “I hope that they put him in prison for the night.”
“These people are shameless! Look! He’s gone into that close and they are waiting for him to come out.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to put an end to this. Five hundred pounds!”
“Biggy, these people are policemen…”
“They’re Special Constables.”
“They can still fine you. They’re rather like wasps – however small, they still have stings…”
But I was marching towards the two Constables. As I approached, Feliks had returned from the close and the two Constables were leading him to one side. Both of them had lost the customary sheepishness of Specials, which always gives an impression that the shadows of two sleeping policemen had detached themselves and slipped away to haunt the streets, before being stricken with the realisation of how unreal and insubstantial they were. These Constables suddenly looked like adults with important jobs.
“We’ve warned you before!”
“And I’ve told you before… Please…” Feliks peered up at the smaller of the Constables, who was still almost twice his size.
“If you wanted to do a Number One, then you could have gone earlier in the evening when you were at your home. Or you simply could have waited. We know where you live – it would take you less than ten minutes to get home. You could have easily waited ten minutes.”
“I’m an old man and my bladder is not what it was. When I was younger I could go all day without needing the lavatory, but now I get caught out.”
“This is selfish and disgusting. Supposing somebody had seen your willy. How would they have felt?”
Feliks did not have an answer for this.
“Now you can either pay the forty pound fine or you can clean up the mess with these cleaning materials. If you clean up the mess, we will film you and the footage will be broadcast on the community website.”
Feliks mumbled something.
“I’m sorry I did not hear that,” the Constable said impatiently. “Speak louder and clearer.”
Feliks mumbled something again.
“You’re going to pay the fine? Right, I will print off a form and a receipt on my electronic notebook…”
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Give me that notebook.”
Before my unexpected attack, the notebook leapt out of the Constable’s hand like a live fish, and both of us were grabbing for it. The device was suddenly, triumphantly, in my fist and I was manoeuvring the Constable lightly from behind, as if he was my partner in a ballet. I finally punched him with such force that my fist ploughed into somewhere tight and hot, and when I was satisfied that I had inserted the notebook as deep as possible, I pulled out my empty fist. I was mildly surprised to see that my bare arm was now glowing scarlet with blood.
The Constable was roaring – the precious, intricate edifice of his established selfhood had shattered like a bottle, releasing a blind animal howl. He ducked down to his knees, where he remained huddled and tottering unsteadily. The second Constable had turned and he was running down the street, bawling to an unresponsive world that they must wake up and do something.
Yet, rather oddly, nothing happened and perhaps nothing would happen. It was as if my assault upon the Constable was like a brick pitched into a pond, and the waters had closed over this disturbance and rocked themselves back to sleep. “What are we going to do?” Feliks whispered, watching the huddled figure with trepidation.
“Run away!” I suggested brightly.
“But they have all my details stored in that man’s… err… notebook.”
“I put it up there so far that they’ll never be able to recover it.”
But then a squad car had screeched up to us and in the twinkling of an eye it had emptied of policemen. Somebody ordered the Constable to stand up.
“I can’t. I’m very badly hurt.”
“Do we need an ambulance?”
The Constable hissed with fury. “We don’t need an ambulance.”
“So you can stand up and walk to the car?”
“No it’s too difficult – I’m too badly hurt.”
After considerable persuasion, the Constable had finally reared to an unsteady crouch and grunting with discomfort, he hopped like a kangaroo towards the awaiting car. His colleagues lifted him inside. Once this procedure had been completed, the policemen looked around for us, but we were gone.
We eventually found a Polish bar in Leith which could offer Feliks a discreet room in the back in exchange for a modest administrative fee. Every man has his price. Feliks is no longer pestered by the Specials, but whilst they have been taught how undesirable a pain in the arse can be, to my knowledge they continue to fulfil their responsibility of annoying the weak, the powerless, and the only moderately lawless, in the British state’s ceaseless quest to split hairs.