Pinkus shuffled head down along the shabby street, his unmatched shoes - one of whose uppers had parted with its sole exposing a row of rusty shark’s teeth - kicking aside discarded cigarette packets and butts and candy-striped cardboard tubs once loaded with greasy chicken legs. Autumn leaves swirled around the cracked flags of the uneven pavement and littered, like flotsam in a harbourside eddy, the precincts of over-shop apartments whose doors rarely stood open in daytime.
He paid no attention to the shoppers and business people who, opposing his progress until confronted by him, parted like impatient waters around a slow moving sludge dredger butting upstream on an unswerving course. To Pinkus it made no difference whether the world around his was populated with scarecrows or fashion plates, men or women; he had no eye for a pretty shape, his libido had died years ago washed away by cheap sherry and methylated spirits hidden in their bottles in brown paper bags visited furtively in public parks erected by idealistic councillors for the public good only to be inhabited by the likes of Pinkus and other tatterdemalions.
Pinkus was dying, slowly, of gross abuse of his bodily organs and of malnutrition. A percipient doctor, were Pinkus by chance to find himself in one's presence, would soon have found, among other incipient outward signs of inner decay, evidence of scurvy. It was hardly surprising for Pinkus dined on a menu of leavings; food scraps which, on a bad day, comprised crusts too heavy for sparrows to carry away or, better, discarded half-eaten sandwiches and doughnuts lying like hidden treasures among the dross of community trash cans. On a better day, Pinkus might find fruit, an apple core, a plum with flesh generously adhering to its stone, a banana with a small cone of sugar-browned pulp nestled at the hub of its splayed panels.
On a good day he would have money to spend; some coins or a low value banknote. They came rarely and from unpredictable sources: opportunistic theft, perhaps from the pocket of a park worker’s jacket left, in the heat of the day, by his wheelbarrow; or from the guilt-loaded charity of a contemplative citizen. On this day, the wealth that Pinkus clutched in the deep pocket of the sagging, oversized army greatcoat that served to cover his emaciated body both from the night airs and public gaze, was a handful of gold-coloured coins that he had found, piled randomly, in the payout cup of a gaming machine in the high street amusement arcade.
They had shooed him away but not before he had scooped out the coins, assuming correctly that his good fortune came from a miraculous moment when a punter, having pulled the bandit machine’s one-arm for the last time, had impatiently turned away disgusted with his inordinate run of bad luck before the final permutation of numbers triggered an internal command to release a minor dividend.
Flush, Pinkus turned in to the mosaic-tiled doorway of a crowded hamburger restaurant and joined a queue of hungry customers. The reactions of those before and after him were worthy of study. Those in front first became aware of the odour; some of those behind left space, having observed Pinkus's dilapidation rapidly followed by a perceptible change in air quality. Others behind simply did not stay, opting, who knows? for Burger King, Wendy's or Kentucky Fried Chicken a few steps along the road.
Hygienic in her fresh, bright, crisp uniform the girl-child, earning part-time money to help with university costs, blinked disconcertedly as Pinkus came to the head of the queue. But the staff-manual smile quickly re-arranged her pretty face as she asked 'What would you like, sir?' Pinkus, just audible, ordered the cheapest hamburger with cheese, some French fries and a milk shake and dipped deeply into the greatcoat pocket. Out came a few coins, some old crumbs, generous pellets of pocket fluff and a rusty paper clip all of which he deposited into a plastic bowl on the counter. The cashier, already wearing plastic gloves that looked like five-fingered condoms, extracted the coins, jettisoned the rubbish, and holding the paper clip ostentatiously between finger and thumb placed it on the tray with his food.
Pinkus looked around. The restaurant was almost full but he espied a table in a corner against a mirrored wall that was cramped beneath a staircase leading to an upper storey. He made his way there largely unconscious of other patrons, as he passed them, who shrank away with stares of repugnance and disbelief at his filthy appearance. Settling in, he opened the striped box and withdrew its contents. On the table was a red plastic container of tomato sauce, another, yellow, with mustard sauce, salt and pepper shakers and a glass cone with a metal funnel, containing white sugar.
Having separated the top of his hamburger from its cheese and meat patty, Pinkus, determined to get his money's worth, picked up the tomato sauce and shook it vigorously. Aiming the spout at the meat patty, Pinkus sqeezed gently. Nothing happened. He shook the container once more, turned it upwards and squeezed again, this time with both hands, hard, until the dried plug of sauce that had blocked the spout suddenly shot out, followed by a stream of tomato ketchup which arced across two tables and struck Liam Murphy, who was dining with his wife and two boys, in the right ear.
Murphy and his family hailed from Ireland and were sworn enemies of the Ulster immigrant family of Donnellys of which Michael, the father, was passing behind Murphy with his tray of food and drink at precisely the moment the sauce stream struck. Red liquid dripping down his tee-shirt, Murphy turned to see Donnelly behind him. 'You focking bathtard, Donnelly.' He rasped, 'You did that on porpose!' and half standing he brought his fist up under the tray and sent it and its contents flying across the restaurant. Michael staggered backwards, knocking a nearby pensioner off his chair and falling to the floor.
Irene Donnelly took that opportunity to swing her black shoulder bag at Murphy's wife, Kathleen. It caught her in the back of her head forcibly ejecting from her mouth an illegal cigarette which lodged itself in the bag as Irene retrieved it.
A small group of punk rockers, all mohawks and safety pins, suddenly fired up by the burgeoning fight between Catholics and Protestants across the room, took the opportunity to hurl a couple of chrome-legged plastic chairs over the now extremely disturbed patrons. One of the chairs hit and shattered the peach-tinted mirror on the wall beside Pinkus just as he noticed that an unopened striped hamburger packet had somehow appeared on his table.
Unnoticed by anybody, Mrs Donnelly's shoulder bag emitted a small puff of white smoke.
Behind the serving counter young boys and girls of the staff watched, amazed, as the manager ran to the telephone to call the police. As he did so he noticed two boys trying to steal the Coca-Cola clock off the wall opposite the broken mirror. Both boys had long coveted the clock and wanted it for a souvenir. Unfortunately it was not battery driven, it was powered by a mains connexion whose flex ran discreetly down the side of a pilaster to a plug socket, the flex being held in place by a series of plastic coated staples set at regular intervals. As the boys removed the clock the staples flew out of the wall and one of them landed on a meat-and-egg-burger as its owner took a bite. Horrified and in pain he started to choke, his neighbours unaware of his predicament as they either watched, dodged or took part in a melee that now engulfed the whole restaurant. His face scarlet he eventually ejected the staple and, staring appalled, at it lying on the table croaked, 'The bastards, the bastards, I'll sue them, I'll sue the bastards!'
The noise was unspeakable as punches were thrown, territory invaded, hair pulled and eyes poked. Schoolboys attacked rivals, schoolgirls screamed at their boyfriends, pensioners wielded sticks and walking frames and two Japanese tourists, not long off their cruise ship moored in the downtown harbour snapped and videotaped digitally as if the show had been especially staged for their enjoyment. From halfway up the stairs a hopeful man had called the local television station on his mobile phone and while engaged in trying to extract money from them in return for letting them know where the riot was taking place, was rendered unconscious when a metal container of paper napkins hit him on the temple.
Pinkus, safe in his corner beneath the staircase, finished his milkshake and wiped his mouth on a paper serviette that had fluttered from the staircase above his lice-infested head. The table next to his had been vacated by the Donnelly boys who were now fighting and biting the Murphy boys on the floor. Suddenly the table upended spilling a mustard sauce container, a plastic wallet and a few gold coins at Pinkus's feet. He leaned down and retrieved the money and wallet which he dropped into his right pocket while slipping the boxed hamburger and condiment into the other. Then, choosing his moment carefully, he slid out from his table, picked his way across the floor, avoiding writhing bodies and squashed French fries and exited the hamburger bar as the distant sound of police sirens reached his tufted, waxed-up ears.
A small crowd had gathered in the street but gave way to Pinkus as the Red Sea had parted for Moses. He had gone no more than five metres from the door when the restaurant's large front window exploded as Liam Murphy's coiled bulk flew through it followed by his deadly enemy's wife's shoulder bag, now smoking like a bishop's censer. As the police car drew to a halt another chair sailed through the gaping window, bounced off the roof of a parked saloon and hit the blue revolving light on the top of the police car. The light and the chair landed in the high street and were promptly flattened by a No. 88 bus whose driver and passengers were paying more attention to the fracas than the road.
Pinkus shuffled a further fifty metres to where a small, pigeon-infested rest area, remnant of an ancient cemetery, provided a haven from the bustle of the main road. Here he settled on to a green wooden bench as another wailing police car followed by an ambulance arrived at the scene.
Pinkus felt in the left pocket of his mouldy greatcoat and his hand closed over the still intact packet containing a double-meat-with-cheese-and-dill-pickle hamburger. Below it he could feel a few French fries and the plastic container of mustard sauce. Then he plumbed his right pocket wherein lay somewhat more coins than he had had when he had first entered the restaurant and also the wallet which he now withdrew. Inside he found some bank notes, credit cards, rewards cards, membership cards, a blood donor's card and a driving licence. He re-pocketed the bank notes and threw the wallet and its remaining contents under a fuschia bush behind the bench.
Pinkus laced his mittened fngers across the string knot that held his greatcoat fastened and drew his head down below its collar. A half smile crossed his wind-roughened cheeks and their marbling of small, broken blood vessels. He belched gently and as he quietly fell asleep reflected that today, among all the dull days, had been a rather good one - with supper already on hand.