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MORNINGSERIAL.

T he men around them pressed closer, stinking of sweat and fish and tobacco smoke.

'Hell!' 'Come on John, what's up wi' you?' 'Come on, man!' 'Jesus!' Leo had no intention of letting up. None. Big John strained his hand from the table top but Leo forced it mercilessly back. No intention at all.

'Christ, he's gunna do him!' 'He's gunna best Big John!' And down went the big man's hand as the men muttered around them in disbelief. Leo shook hands and bought drinks all round with his winnings. Then he drank himself stupid. Drank himself into oblivion. He couldn't remember leaving the Endeavour or what had happened to Big John or how he'd climbed the hundred and one steps up to the cottage before falling into bed.

The day of the hangover his arm and his head ached all day. He dined on kippers, filling the house with their fragrance and washing them down with large glasses of malt whiskey until the headache went. He loved the smokiness of the kippers mingled with the peat flavour of the whiskey. He thought about the kippers curing, slowly sweating out their oil; greasing the walls of the smokehouse below the cliff.

He imagined himself entering there naked, like a Sioux brave pushing aside deerskin hangings to enter the sweat lodge. Then the shaman greeting him, healing him. The shaman with his inscrutable smile, his bony hands touching Leo's body. Naked in the reek of the smokehouse, squatting among piles of smouldering sawdust, breathing smoke deep into his lungs.

Immortalised, his skin would turn brown and ageless.

But Leo wasn't ageless. He was mortal. He knew he was going to die and he couldn't cast the worm away where it turned in him. That night he went from pub to pub. The Endeavour, Duke of York, Black Horse, Jolly Sailors, The Board. Twice he was recognised and asked to arm wrestle, twice he refused with the charm of a professional actor. The imperturbable charm that nothing could shift and that he was famous for. Almost.

Walking home, he paused on the swing bridge to stare at the river that glittered under him. It stank of death. Everything did.

* Touch by Graham Mort is published by Seren at pounds 7.99 www.serenbooks.com > CONTINUES TOMORROW
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 13, 2011
Words:384
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