Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Ori and his Lunchbox


George unplugged the sandwich toaster and looked across the expanse of Victoria Station. The arches of its roof reached to the heavens like the exposed ribs of some beached whale long since forgotten. Sparrows chittered up high, as heavy clouds spat the first sulky blobs of rain onto the glass.

It was time to pack up the sandwich bar for the day. Morning was peak time for Aphrodite’s Fillings, closely followed by the hungry commuter rush for the home counties that tapered off around 8 in the evening. Most of his regulars were now back in the leafy lanes and Lego-like housing developments of Surrey and Sussex. It was late, with no more passing trade to make it worth prolonging George’s day any more.

Quiet now, just a few straggling suits heading home. Empty food wrappers spilled out of the bins, some drifting across the concourse like tumbleweed in a Western. This was the time for the station’s other regulars. A population of underdogs hiding in plain sight, slumped all day in the corners, bedraggled figures in cast-off anoraks and battered trousers held up with string. Easily missed when you’re swept along in a sea of urban respectability.

George was looking for someone. A specific someone.

Right on cue, there he was. The huddle in front of the announcement board parted to reveal a tall, gangly figure in a cast-off raincoat from Marks & Spencer’s 1987 ladies’ collection streaked with grime that no self-respecting M&S matron would tolerate. Someone’s misplaced old school tie served as a belt, but the right-hand buttoning and jaunty details at the cuffs which ended halfway up his arms were a dead give-away. His long stringy hair was plastered greasily to sunken cheeks. An old leather satchel was slung across his body and he carried a placard proclaiming ‘THE END IS NIGH’.

Eyes burning from beneath eyebrows as shaggy as a wolfhound fixed on George, and he opened his mouth in a smile that revealed teeth as blackened and crooked as ancient tombstones.

George motioned him over. Crazy Ori was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever-widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked his conscience every time he saw him. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jolt to his normality to make him feel uncomfortable. Guilty. Not much, but enough to make him hand over what was left over from the day’s baguettes, wraps and pittas.

It was a year since George and his father had taken over the sandwich bar concession in the station, and a full twelve months since his father had set foot in it. Every day, George was there, serving up snacks as divine as the goddess of love that his dad insisted they name it after, in honour of the island he had left as a young man thirty years ago. Just 19 years old, George was a hard-worker and good with the customers – chatting brightly and flashing his doe-eyes at customers as he filled their sandwiches.

He couldn’t recall when he’d first noticed Ori’s rambling, shambling presence. It was like he’d always been there, part of the army of invisible unfortunates who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk of what might be if they strayed too far from normality. But he could not forget the first time he'd first heard his voice. Like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff and creaky from lack of use.

The old-timer had reached over and lightly touched the ornate Orthodox cross his mother insisted he wear, nestled in the dark curls poking up over the neckline of his shirt. “You believe?” he’d asked.

“Yeah, of course, mate. Got to, don’t you?”

“But have you repented?”

George thought back to the last time his mum had dragged him to confession at St Sofia’s, shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“Well, not officially. But I do, you know, feel bad about some stuff. It’s hard when you’re busy, innit?”

Ori had nodded sagely with the solemnity gave George’s reply far more weight than it warranted.

“Not long now. I’ve seen the signs. It’s coming,” he growled conspiratorially. “Any time now, the call will come.” He glanced with meaning at the battered transistor radio in his hand with the flap hanging off its empty battery compartment.

That must have been six months ago, and still no call had summoned Ori to his higher cause. And at the end of every busy day, he would appear and George would give him a few pieces of bread, a hunk of haloumi starting to sweat under the lights, maybe a dollop of taramosalata or hummus, the occasional cheese pie and anything else that wouldn’t survive a night in the fridge and come out as fresh as a daisy for the morning punters.

“Evening, Ori,” said the young lad cheerily, putting out his hand as the tramp approached the stand.

“Orifiel,” he replied, fumbling in his bag.

“Yeah, right. I get that too – my real name’s Yiorgios, but everyone calls me George. I’ve got a nice bit of turkey for you today.”

Ori pulled out a square lunchbox made from white opaque plastic. There were three indentations in the lid, where once a plastic knife, fork and spoon would have slotted. Once upon a time. Long since lost now.

He then turned to argue with a pigeon picking at the crumbs on the floor.

As George opened the box, the stench of a thousand leftover meals hit him. Though empty, its side were streaked with the remains of old sandwiches, half-eaten pasties rescued from bins and salads well past their best.

He was a kind-hearted boy from a good Cypriot family, his cherubic cheeks a testament to his mother’s home cooking and her insistence on sending him off to work every morning with a healthy portion of the family’s meal from the night before. Today, it had been a doorstep-sized chunk of moussaka, Mama Lucia insisting as she did every morning that he needed more than “bits of toast” to keep him going through the day.

He put Ori’s stinking lunchbox to one side, making a mental note to return it perfectly clean later, and eyed the old feta container that had held his moussaka, empty and dutifully rinsed out (even though George knew his mother would scrub it with scalding hot water at home). He made a decision. Putting Ori’s lunchbox to one side and vowing to take it home and clean it properly (or leave it to the mercies of Mama Lucia), he piled the day’s leftovers into the box that had held his lunch.

Ori had won his argument with the pigeon and was now scanning the station roof for some kind of sign, his ear cocked like a puppy waiting hear “Walkies!”. George put the box on the counter and was about to explain that he’d wash and return the original, when Ori’s eyes swivelled at the sound of a cab’s horn impatiently tooting in the taxi rank outside.

“The call!” He grabbed the box without giving it a glance and stuffed it into his satchel.

“I’ll remember you in The Reckoning,” he told George, then turned on his heel and strode across the station towards the Underground.

George shrugged. He’d heard no special call, just the ceaseless soundtrack of the city. He shook his head sadly as he watched the entrance to the Underground swallow up Ori and wondered if he’d ever had a family or someone to look care for him.

++++++++++++++++

It was quiet, or as quiet as it ever gets, as Ori walked down the steps to the Tube. Too late for commuters, too early for revellers. Station staff stood wearily on guard, dampened by nearly eight hours of duty and dreaming of a hot meal and a hotter bath when they got home. One watched Ori as he approached the barrier but paid no attention when his coat sleeve produced the same beep a valid ticket would have and opened the way. Nor did he wonder at the sight of the crazy old loon dragging the placard onto the escalator. He’d been working the London Underground for nearly thirty years – it took much more than that to make him raise an eyebrow.

Ori mounted the creaking, cranking elevator that would take him juddering down into the bowels of the earth to the platform. A platform that had seen a great deal since it opened in the cold autumn of 1896. Billions of journeys, thousands sheltered from bombs dropping overhead, more suicides than it cared to remember, and a million romances, break-ups, new dreams, old despairs.

He was alone. The stale breeze of the train that left just moments before lingered in the air as he emerged onto the cracked cream tiles. Looking both ways to check no-one was watching, Ori leaned his placard against the wall and jumped down onto the track far more nimbly than a man his age should be able to and stepped into the darkness of the tunnel.

Feeling his way along the damp brick walls, his eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom the deeper he went. The wall stopped at a recess, easily mistaken for passing space for workers or storage for their equipment, that went back a good four feet to a rusted metal door.

Ori tried the handle. It opened with a clunking creak and he walked through into the sulphur yellow glow of the streetlights in Limekiln Lane.

It was good to be back. He swept his hair – now a glowing, flowing mane of silver in the lamplight – over his shoulder and looked around.

Standing before him was Gabe, horn still in his hand, his broad grin shining through the darkness. Behind him Val, as always resplendent but slightly scary in her biker’s leathers, Haniel in sensible shoes and wings flapping gently behind her, and Zachariel looking sulky and resentful. To one side stood two out-of-place mortals, a scruffy man in a trilby and great coat, and a respectable housewife knocking back espressos.

Gabriel, Haniel and Zachariel each held something small, white and plastic. A knife, a fork and a spoon, designed to slot into the grooves on Ori’s lunchbox and signal the beginning of the Last Great Battle.

Ori smiled and reached into his bag. But what he pulled out was greeted with groans of dismay.

“Great! Just great, man,” blurted Gabe, fingering the trumpet in one hand and banging his knife against the box with the other. “How is this going to work if you can’t even be trusted to bring the right box?”

Val muttered “Men!” under her breath, angry sparks flashing in her icy blue eyes.

Ori looked down at the box in his hands, took off the lid and held it out. “Cheese pie?”


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