Blue Night, Blue City
by Bertil Falk
part 1 of 2
It was after midnight and the flakes fell slowly while the blue full moon spread a pale color across the snow of the Great Square. It was the smallest square in the city, but it was also the oldest. That was why it had been permitted to keep its old name.
Some hundred years before, the spot had been used as a place of execution. About one hundred people of the male sex, even children, had been beheaded. The atrocious deed went down into history as The Bloodbath. Since then, the most exciting events were the bloodless annual Christmas fairs held where once the blood had covered the cobblestones.
The temperature was well below the freezing point. A lonesome shape, tall and stout, stalked the blue square. It knelt at the corner of the old exchange building and picked up a refundable bottle, putting the salvage into the knapsack it carried on its back.
Abruptly, the shape turned down into one of the by-lanes. It stopped at the backstage of a luxurious seafood restaurant, where a brilliant cook from Vietnam, evening after evening, year after year, on the stage of dinner tables performed the most dramatic fish dishes well into the small hours.
A lady’s bicycle stood aslant against the wall. It was a rusty one, single speed, furnished with an old Bosch dynamo that had seen its best days. The flex was gone, as was the attached original cycle lamp. It had been replaced with a battery-powered lamp, actually a pretty small thing.
In the light of an old-fashioned street-lamp, kept to keep the medieval appearance of the alley alive, the man, for the shape was that of a man, seemed to be stuffed. The reason was that he wore three pairs of trousers and three jackets under two overcoats. And underneath all that were three pairs of longjohns and three undershirts. Inside a pair of strong boots, he wore three pairs of socks. His headgear would have been appreciated in Lapland or Siberia, and his Aston Villa bar scarf was muffled a couple of rounds about his neck, covering most of the face, except his eyes.
He never ceased wondering at people throwing away more or less new clothes, but he was pleased that they did.
His eyes were electric blue, somewhat hazy but at the same time observant. He was obviously aware of everything that happened around him, or, as at this moment, everything not at all happening around him.
He knocked at the kitchen back door of the fish restaurant. A woman opened the door slightly and peeped out, routinely surveying the lane. When she saw the man, she smiled and opened the door. “The night stalker coming in from the cold,” she said.
Without a word the man entered the kitchen.
“I have a nice doggy bag for you tonight, Harry,” she said and handed over a plastic ice cream box. “It contains three kinds of herring, boiled potatoes, dill and two tomatoes.”
“It’s cold, but I’m not freezing,” Harry answered her welcoming words, and then he caught up with her verbal lead by stating, “Thanks, Laura. You know I love herring.”
He unmuffled his face. It turned out to be weather-beaten. But even though he most certainly had passed the borderline to the other side of forty, his was to some degree a young man’s face, the countenance of someone who had been through purgatory but survived while still able to smile. A few but strongly emphasized furrows signaled experience.
Laura wiped her hands on her apron. She was about thirty-five going on fifty. She had worked all her life; a working-class lady, who after many years reached some kind of goal when she got a job as part of the night-shift kitchen staff. Her working years had carved lines in her once-smooth face, but she was a happy woman, unmarried with a twelve-year old son who did well in school.
Laura was the one who stayed on until late in the morning, and when she left on her bike, the whole kitchen was shining as good as new. Her strong hands could easily open a reluctant bottle of wine or carefully put out a saucer with milk to a stray cat in the laneway.
“You can’t bike home tonight, “ Harry said. “Too much snow on the streets, slippery at some places.”
Laura shook her head and poured out a cup of coffee for him while she downed a glass of sherry left over by some customer in the restaurant. She knew well that Harry never touched spirits, not even a pint of beer. “Have you been successful tonight?” she asked.
“A few refundable bottles and some tins, that’s all. But I’ve not been everywhere yet.”
“Will many people die tonight?”
He knew what she meant. “If we get a sudden cold spell combined with a blizzard, the welfare workers will lose their jobs, for then many hobos on the verge will go down the drain.”
“How about your friend?”
“She’s not my friend. Just a fellow creature going downhill. I guess she’s out there right now earning so she can buy something for her syringe.” He smiled at her. “How is Bob?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said. “He got a diploma yesterday.”
He took off his rucksack, put the doggy bag into it and put the rucksack on again. “Thanks, Laura, and remember, don’t bike tonight.” He muffled the Aston Villa scarf around his neck and went out into the night again. She would not take his advice, he knew.
Slowly, Harry walked down the by-lane. The snow was no longer falling, and the moonlight did not penetrate the narrow slit between the old four-storied houses. The by-lane led to another square, and he was surprised to see Ingemar with his magazines talking to the hotdog man in his wheeled stall.
“I thought that you only sold that down-and-out magazine in daylight?” Harry said.
“Right now, I’m only buying a hotdog. Are you making your rounds?”
“Avoid the nightclub. The doorkeeper was stabbed half an hour ago. There’s still a lot of action over there.”
“Thanks for telling me.” Harry nodded at Ingemar and the hot dog man and went on. He walked in darkness until he reached the embankment, illuminated by the power of the full moon. The water, warmer than the air, was steaming, and a film of thin ice was rapidly turning into a thicker and safer coating of ice. He saw birds relaxing down there. In the morning some swans and wild ducks would be found frozen fast in the ice. People, many of whom did not care for their fellow-beings, would run to their rescue.
On the bridge, two drunken men were fighting. The front of Grand Hotel on the other side of the water was floodlit and a limousine stopped outside the broad entrance. The neon lights of the nearby hamburger restaurant were reflected in the water. Traffic was low and slow.
Harry went along the embankment to the bridge, where he walked down the stone steps and disappeared out of sight. Her sleeping bag was empty. Of course, Liza had failed to comply with his suggestion to hide the bag. The usual signs of drug abuse littered the place.
Harry shrugged his shoulders, returned to the embankment and walked across the bridge. The drunkards were gone. He quickened his steps and hastened to one of his hunting grounds for collecting valuables. He took out his gloves and donned them. He had to climb a stone wall to get inside, but he was accustomed to it and vaulted like a Tarzan over the top of the wall dotted with pieces of broken glass.
There was a big container, where the well-to-do inhabitants of the house threw their useful, useless things; useful to him, useless to them.
A dog began barking in one of the apartments and Harry sank into the shadows of the big oak tree in the middle of the back yard. He stood still until the dog ceased barking. As slowly and as carefully as possible he went to the container and crept into it. Inside it, he took out his flashlight for the first time that night.
The ray of light traveled into every corner of the container. He was just on the point of digging into all the trash when the beam caught a glimpse of something that definitely should not be where it was.
Out of the rags and papers and shoes and rubbish a hand protruded. Harry stood still for a moment. Then he approached the unexpected find and with his hands he brushed away the covering trash. A battered face! Calmly, he regarded the victim. He did not recognize the man. The face was too grotesque and contorted.
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk