2nd place: The Undertaker by Charlie Trotter

A dreary Sunday afternoon in Brno, Mick wanders through Brno in search of some inspiration and more importantly a hangover cure.

Brno – November 2019

A piercing screech filled the room. Eyes closed, Mick winced as the shock flowed from his ears through his body to what felt like every pore of skin; goosebumps leaping to attention. He gave a concerned glance around him. An elderly lady gave him a shot of disapproval as her husband continued slurping his soup.

            Mick continued pulling up his heavy wooden chair, taking care to reduce the scraping noise against the tiled floor. He quickly peered at the menu, although he could predict every available dish: svíčková, smažený řízek, smažený sýr, he couldn’t be bothered to finish scanning the whole thing. He hadn’t been here before but the faded Staré Brno umbrella outside suggested this place had little novelty. The walls were bare apart from an old ice-hockey stick above the bar. The tables were covered in tatty, green tablecloths which still had a faint lingering smell of stale cigarette smoke. He often found himself in these kind of establishments on his Sunday afternoon walks, it being the day of the week he’d most often contemplate home. He could never quite pin down what it was that made this comforting connection in his mind to his North East of England upbringing. His local as a teenager was often crowded and filled with a symphony of people jostling at the bar, the thudding of angry pool shots and the occasional cries of “waaaay!” in response to the smash of a dropped pint. Perhaps it was simply that these unreformed hospodas were relatively untouched by time and modern trends, allowing him to slip into nostalgia. The promenade at Přehrada had this effect on him. In the height of summer with its fairground rides, blasting dance music and candyfloss and whippy ice-cream stalls, it reminded him of childhood holidays to Blackpool in the 90s. He knew that soon it would offer more hipster street food vans and bars but for now it had echoes of past decades.

            “Pro vás?”

            “Dobrý den. Dám si svíčková a pivo. Dvanástku prosím.”

            The waitress put the customary torn scrap of notepaper on the table and took his menu without uttering another word nor making eye contact. Today of all days it was difficult to remember what sense of home these old pubs ever brought him. This place had the atmosphere of a funeral parlour. Feeling melancholic, he’d just wandered aimlessly from his Líšeň flat towards the city centre in search of a stodgy hangover cure. His queasy stomach had disapproved of all the options he’d passed. Despite the grim November weather, he’d managed to eke out some small joy from the bracing wind and exercise and walked for about an hour before settling on somewhere that looked cheap and warm. He was surprised that after 8 years he’d still managed to lose himself and find streets he’d yet to explore.

            The waitress was back only moments later, plonking his beer in front of him as foam continued spilling over the top, soaking into the coaster. They wouldn’t have wasted a drop in the Coble, Mick mused to himself and smiled internally. One time the fearsome landlord had sacked his friend Gavin on his first shift for repeatedly over-pouring. Of course Mick had been at the other side of the bar goading him on, complaining the large head on his pints were short-changing him.

            “Sorry about that one Gav,” he toasted out loud to his old friend and gulped about a third of it. The elderly woman gave him another suspicious look. She and her husband had barely exchanged any words at all since he’d entered the pub. Mick concluded that her unstimulated mind must be looking for any irritation to alleviate its boredom.

            There was probably also another explanation. He was used to being stared at occasionally. Partly because he’d inherited his Indian grandfather’s black hair and dark features, and partly due to how he dressed, he had occasionally been mistaken for being Roma. He would often be followed around shops by security guards and once or twice he’d pretended to have a phone call so they could hear him speaking English. He didn’t particularly mind being followed but he found it quite fun to play with them. He was used to being watched carefully in shops as a teenager but at least that was based on reputation. Well Gavin’s anyway. Here in Brno, once people knew he was British, he found they seemed to be more relaxed around him. Often Czech’s impression of Britain seemed a little rose-tinted to Mick, alien to the deprivation he’d grown up around in Newbiggin.

            Mick put the woman to the back of his mind. This was Gav’s day. He opened up Facebook on his phone and thought about what to write. He scanned through all the other comments on the page looking for inspiration. Nothing he began to type felt original or fitting.

Newbiggin-by-the-sea – September 2007

            “For fuck’s sake man ya fucking tit,” Gavin confronted his friend outside the front of the Cobble. Mick did feel sympathy but was quite drunk and visibly struggling to contain laughter.

            “It’s hardly my fault you can’t pull a fucking pint!”

            “Howay! Bar-bender, you always give ya boyfriend head like that?!” shouted some older boys from the pub who were smoking outside.

            “Just ignore them, Gav. Fucking charvas,” Mick put a heavy, protective, drunken arm around his shoulders.

            “Mick, what are ya deein’?” Gavin pushed him away.

            “Trouble in paradise I see lads,” the other boys continued to taunt.

            Not wanting to get into any trouble, Gavin shepherded Mick away before he could shout anything back and risk it turning into a brawl. He was feeling acutely sober and embarrassed and unlike his friend, in no mood for any genuine confrontation.

            “I needed that job you know. Mam says I have to pay rent if I stay at home.”

            “I’m sure you’ll find something,” Mick tried to reassure him.

            “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention but there’s fuck all here.”

            “Aye, I guess,” Mick conceded .

            “Steph’s movin’ in with Garry.”

            “Really? Fuckin’ hell that was quick. Does your mam still hate him?”

            “Aye. Gary’s canny enough but he’s from West Newbiggin. Goes without saying.” Gavin pulled a face.

            “Why do yous from the mining and fishing parts of town hate each other so much? It’s not like anyone still does any mining or fishing.”

            Gavin shrugged. “At least we’re not posh bellends from the big houses. Railway snob.” He caught Mick off guard, yanking his nose upwards with his fingers.

            “There isn’t even a railway either. Me being posh is like being the world’s tallest midget. A shitehole’s a shitehole. Fuck me I need a slash. Let wi go on the beach?”.

            “Piss wherever mate, I’m not ya mam.”

            “It’s so weird how there wasn’t a beach… and now there’s a beach,” Mick wondered out loud as he unzipped his fly.

            “Aye, I guess,” Gavin replied and joined him standing on the old concrete barrier which once protected the promenade from the sea and now separated it from the new sand.

            “So there was a beach ages ago, then there wasn’t one. Where did it go?” Mick pondered.

            “Washed away?” Gavin suggested.

            “So will it not just wash away again?”

            “I don’t know Mick,” Gavin said impatiently. “You’re the one gannin to uni, ask ya teachers, they’ll learn ya.”

            “What, my computer science tutors?”

            “Jesus. You realise how odd it is how people speak to ya when you’re pissin’ if you’re sober.  Every time I went tonight, some old bloke would be there, fucking dick in his hand, pissing away, asking me how my first shift’s going and givin’ me pourin’ techniques; telling me not to worry about Pete. Goes to show ya can’t trust everything drunks tell ya.”

            “Sorry mate.” Mick patted his friend on the shoulder.

            Gavin finished first and clambered down. Mick was now whistling a 90s dance anthem, 9PM by ATB, as he was shaking the last droplets of urine.

            “Is that dog shite on the beach?” said Gavin.

            “Where?” Mick looked down as Gavin suddenly rammed into his back, sending him sprawling face first into the sand, trousers still around his knees.

            “The Undertaker does it again!” Gavin shouted in a mock American accent, jumping back up onto the barrier with, arms aloft. “And what’s this?! Oh my god he’s going to…!”

            With that he dropped his bulky frame and landed on Mick, holding him down and pretending to repeatedly elbow him in the face, commentating on each blow.

            “Ah man ya tit! There’s no dog shite down here,” Mick protested.

            For several minutes they struggled until they were both completely covered in sand and Mick threatened he was about to vomit.

            They both lay back on the beach, panting and looking up at the pitch black, overcast night sky.

Brno – November 2019

             Mick had managed to find his bearings again despite being quite tipsy after four beers and refusing to use the map on his phone. He’d hit the Svitava river and walked along it until he got the big Albert on Cejl to do some shopping before heading home. He’d spent a year living in this part of the city and was reminded how he felt less conspicuous. Not wanting to go back to an empty flat, he walked down Bratislavská with his carrier bags. The rain-clouds had cleared, the wind had dropped and it was turning into a bright and unseasonably mild evening. A bunch of children of varying ages ran past him giggling and shouting as he came to the square over which his balcony had hung. He was starting to feel nostalgia creeping on him. Perhaps it was the sight of his old flat or a peculiar jealousy of the kids, desperately eeking out as much fun as possible from the rest of the weekend. It seemed a strange place to have the thought but Mick felt particularly solemn that Gavin had never visited him here.

            He decided to wander up to the community park to sit and have a smoke; see if he could finally think of what to say. He found a soggy bench, dumped his bags and rolled a cigarette. He wanted to think of something touching and personal, not just a copy paste ‘RIP you legend!’ He wondered if he should write anything at all but given he hadn’t gone back for the funeral, he felt he should write something. It felt like the whole of the Newbiggin had and he had been his best mate after all.

             He looked around the park. He’d enjoyed his time here. The noise and atmosphere was familiar to him in comparison with the city’s quieter neighbourhoods, which had what Mick felt was an oppressive tranquillity. He would often be asked by concerned Czechs if it was safe living there. He wondered how many British people would say something similar about Newbiggin. In fact he’d always felt safer, invisible even. The way he’d heard Czechs speak about gypsies was familiar. He’d heard the same things about some of the rougher families at home, particularly those who had been evicted and relocated. They were unaffectionately referred to as ‘charvas’. It was a word he’d heard used several times against Gavin and one time he himself had been called one at university. They themselves of course had used it. He knew though there was only so far he could empathise. Roma people, unlike charvas, can be identified by the colour of their skin. He felt his occasional being mistaken for one wasn’t the same as being one.

            After realising his lighter was broken he went to find one.

            “Dobrý den. Mate zapalovač?” He asked a group of about six young men, possibly teenagers.

            “Jo jo. Není problem.” One of the boys passed him a lighter.

            Mick lit his cigarette and passed it back.

            “Thank you.”

            “English?”

            “Yes.”

            “Bye bye English man.”

            Mick smirked and wandered back to his bench. There was something mocking in his tone but certainly not threatening. He often couldn’t be sure what the tone of these kind of interactions actually were with the language barrier.

            For ten minutes he flicked though old Facebook photos, eventually getting to the ones they took on the beach before he left for university. He laughed out loud at Gavin’s WWE poses.

           He could hear voices becoming more animated behind him until he was aware of a crescendo of shouting. He heard an unmistakeable thud of fists and quickly glanced over his shoulder. They were smiling and laughing as they fought and yet it was ferocious. Mick simply closed his eyes and listened, imagining Gavin commentating over the top. After about a minute, it petered out.

            He looked up and the now pitch black evening sky. He suddenly knew exactly what to write.

THE UNDERTAKER DOES IT AGAIN! Sorry I can’t be there today. RIP champion xxx

            Mick posted it and let out a sigh of relief and put his phone in his pocket. He mentally plotted his route to the nearest convenient tram, picked up his bags and started wandering towards the exit of the park.

            “Shit.” Mick quickly dropped his shopping, frantically unlocked his phone and deleted his post. “What the hell was I thinking. This is fucking impossible!”

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