The Speech Maker by Chris Darlington

James Thredgold, newly graduated In English from the local university, was lucky enough to get a job at the new multi-million pounds refurbished Victorian Library in town. The decision to refurbish this library was not one everybody agreed with. Some people preferred things to stay the same. Most local people didn’t like change, especially if it affected them personally. One such person was John McCoy, of no fixed abode. He had been this way some twenty years.

He lived on the mean streets. He had to be strong to survive the harsh winters and the strange people on the street. McCoy was different from other drunks. He was a thinker, as well as a drinker. McCoy read whatever battered book came his way. He had an opinion on most subjects, until it was dulled by alcohol. He was known as the Orator among other homeless people on the street, some of them even consulted him on what they should do about their problems. He never had answers, but was very good at giving speeches on all subjects that made them think.

McCoy was not too pleased when the reading room went; it was a fountain of knowledge for him and other people in the street. He had enjoyed the good old-fashioned heating system, whose pipes got red hot in the winter. McCoy loved to dry his socks out when his shoes leaked, which made the reading room a little pungent at times.

His presence was known to be unwelcomed by the old-fashioned librarians who often kicked him out if they saw him.

James Thredgold arrived on a Monday with a briefcase full of books and a head full of dreams. He carried with him his neatly typed notes for his next book. He had hoped to work on his book in-between the mayhem of being a Writer in Residence. This was his first post. He was looking forward to the challenge with a little trepidation. He fingered his collar with nervous fingers, trying to look the complete professional in his best tweedy suit and highly polished shoes.

A little sweat was now slowly breaking out on his forehead. He noticed sitting in a neat row before him was a small group of elderly ladies, happily chatting amongst themselves. They were all ‘would be’ poets, of the chocolate box variety. His heart sank; after the first poem he was longing to get back to his own writing, but the adoration of the old ladies kept him politely in his seat.

He felt like making a run for it at times. Then how would he pay the rent? James knew he couldn’t wave his magic wand or magic biro and turn these elderly ladies into the next poet laureate.  James smiled politely as he listened to the ladies poems, almost winching with the pain inflicted on his ears drums and the damage done to the English Language.

He tried his best to make constructive comments; it was very hard going.
As the hour went by another interested party was hovering in the background like a darkened, crumpled shadow or a moving buddle of rags. McCoy sniffed the air and said, “Do you call that poetry? That’s just a load of……”. Thankfully, he never finished the sentence.

The group of ladies was outraged by his unwanted intrusion and comments and looked to James for guidance , which was a bit tricky for James because inside he felt the same about their writing but couldn’t possibly say so in case he lost his job. James set the ladies some homework on a subject they all had never written about, poverty.

Just as the ladies were about to go, McCoy chimed in with “wait a minute mister, what about me poem?” He told James he had especially written it that morning after being sick in Church Street.

James being a very easy going liberal kind of person willingly took a walk on the wild side for once to hear McCoy’s poem. McCoy’s voice boomed out loudly before the ladies could protest. The poem was called “Ode to a Park Bench.” With a real earthy roughness in his voice, he read it out loud. To James’ and the ladies’ surprise it turned out to be the best poem of the day. The old ladies filed out quickly giving McCoy dirty looks, like somebody had spoiled their birthday party or he had stolen their thunder, which he had.

On his way out McCoy took a little bottle of alcohol from his pocket, offering it in James’s direction. He declined the offer, smiling.

“Same time next week, mister,” said the drunk to James in a loud voice. James said nothing. McCoy said, “I like a bit of poetry now and then. It warms the soul and cleanses the heart, and some of me pals like poetry. I might bring one or two with me next time to make the numbers up. We could have a sing song too.” He waved as he made his way out of the doors of the new library.

James slumped back in his chair. He could see he was going to earn his money as a writer in residence; none of this was in the job description. It was going to be a very long twelve months. He realised later he’d not read anything from his own book to the ladies and this was part of the reason he’d brought copies with him. Over the next few days he was to meet many residents of the town, from six form groupies to a postman who wrote songs. Even a supermarket manager who wrote risky rhyme in his dinner hour.

Bad poetry was everywhere it seemed, it filled his entire world completely at times. James hoped he could help them, but didn’t hold out much hope. He tried to pick himself up from the great sense of depression that overwhelmed him. If he could find one talented person in the twelve months, his stint of being writer in residence of this little town would have been worthwhile.

So far he had only heard one piece of writing that was anything like poetry and that was the old drunk’s, McCoy, who strangely had failed to turn up at the next meeting, much to the delight of the group of ladies and residents. It puzzled him that McCoy hadn’t turned up. People like McCoy usually do turn up and seem to be around forever.

He was sad that McCoy had disappeared; the man had at least been the one distraction from the boredom. He had felt like giving McCoy his head to wake the ladies up from their Chocolate Box world, but was afraid he would end up taking over.

Then the next day, on his way to the library, there had been a terrible accident. Somebody had been hit by a speeding car in a hit-and-run. A man was lying in the road; the crowds stood and stared as a passing doctor did his best to keep the person alive while they awaited the ambulance. Later the body was taken away, covered in a grey blanket. Soon the show was over and the street began to empty. Heavy rain washed away some of the blood in the gutter.

On the way into the library building, one of the old ladies handed James a dirty scrap of paper that had fallen out of the pocket of the dying man when he was being taken away. It later turned out to be the poem McCoy had read to him all those weeks ago. James felt sad about what had happened. It was too late to be sorry. He regretted he’d never spoken enough to him or given him some encouragement.

James was now determined to throw all the talent he had in to helping the other residents of the town to become better writers and he never forgot McCoy and his one visit to the writer in residence. As a reminder of him he kept McCoy’s poem folded in the pocket of his wallet and read it from time to time and could still hear McCoy’s rough booming voice.

Chris Darlington has been writing forty-five years. His work has appeared in lots of magazines all over the globe since the 1980s. Chris writes poetry, plays and short stories; he has also written lots of biographical stories and local history. The last four years have been spent writing short stories. Chris likes inventing new characters and loves telling stories. He is working on a sitcom he says is the hardest thing he has ever written.

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