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"I Could Have Been a Tallboy" by Mike Hickman

Tallboys, Tony told me, came in dove grey and Chantilly grey and London oak and Rutland oak and more varieties than most people might imagine. If, say, tallboy identification wasn’t a major part of their Friday morning curriculum, as it was now mine. The subject fitted neatly into the gap between the hunt for the latest dictionaries in Waterstones (at no later than quarter to 11 in order to ensure that nice Friday Roxanne was still on the till to smile at him) and the 10:30 am single Americano in Costa with the giant-sized Jammy Dodger biscuit to follow. Indeed, it went beyond mere tallboy identification. Tony was keen on words, and he was keener still on the correct application of said words. Thus, our Friday morning tallboy discussion would inevitably veer towards the controversial non-tallboys to be found on display in the High Street – those that were not the combination chest of drawers and wardrobes, as required by the definition. Was this carelessness on the part of those selling them? Or was this an attempt to strike at the very heart of our collective understanding of reality? After all, if they could get away with calling any old chest of drawers a tallboy, knowing that no one really cared anymore what word was used, then what did that say about all the other words? And what kind of world would that leave us with?

An interesting question. And one I could have spent some time musing over ona Friday morning if Tony wasn’t already doing much of the musing himself. Until, that is, he took us to see the tallboy. The one that had started the obsession.

“I could have been a tallboy,” Tony said. Not for the first time. We were once again in the community furniture store in the old shopping centre. The only shop worth visiting amongst the boarded-up clothing stores, the chain pubs, and a branch of Poundland in which every other item seemed to cost more than a pound. (I’d had to keep that from Tony in case of a major meltdown). Such was the state of the country now.

Tony didn’t share my town centre despond, however. If you didn’t know him – if you just saw him out and about, say, with his newly purchased books or his 1 o’clock doughnut, or in the library browsing the World War II section – you’d recognise the enthusiast in him that lived side-by-side with the pedant. You’d see the joie de vivre which, first time I’d used the phrase, he’d amended to joie de livre (not that he’d ever formally studied French) before determining that joie de libre was maybe more appropriate.

And, no, he wasn’t joking. He rarely did. It all came from his love of words. A shame, I thought, because he might have enjoyed a good pun.

The first time we’d stopped off at this furniture store, he’d been drawn in by the different hatstands in the window (“coat racks,” he’d corrected me), being especially taken by what he told me was a vintage bentwood. And who was I to disbelieve him? There’d been a moment or two amongst the hatstands (“coat racks,” he’d corrected me again) and some fun, too, with my use of the incorrect name. It was only later that I worked out that hatstand really was a word for pencils up the nose and underpants on the head style mental wibbling. A breakdown, if you need the more formal appellation. As in, “you’ve gone all hatstand”. God alone knew where Tony had found that definition. He wasn’t allowed the internet at home, so there was no way it was the Urban Dictionary. And it wasn’t a gag.

I should have learned not to doubt him when he got into definitions. Nor to doubt his choice of words, either.

“I could have been a tallboy,” he’d said, clutching his dictionaries, staring up at the item that had attracted his attention.

We’d come in that first time for the hatstands (“coat racks”) but we’d stayed for the tallboy. And now it was part of the routine. Because this wasn’t just any old tallboy. This was his tallboy. This it seemed, if you haven’t already spotted it in his always deliberate phrasing, Tony himself in tallboy form.

This Friday was no different from any of the other Fridays in recent times. I had hold of Tony’s clammy, moist hand, as he insisted I always did, and I gave my studied unselfconscious, “yeah, you got a problem with this?” smile at the over-interested old ladies with the M & S shopping bags full of meals for one and cat food as they tut-shuffled their way around us.

What to say to him in response this time? Yes, perhaps you could, Tony. Perhaps this is the very one your folks would have bought, back when this shop wasn’t the local Community Furniture Store but the local branch of Big Name Furniture or whatever.

“Could be the same one,” Tony told me, as he’d told me last time at precisely the point I’d left it too long for any kind of response.

“I doubt it, Tony,” I replied this time. Which was wrong, of course, because how would I know? Could I prove it? Could anyone? It wasn’t the kind of thing we could look up on the library computer. When Tony wasn’t watching old episodes of “Grange Hill” on YouTube (other 1980s children’s TV shows were available, and he always knew precisely where to find them, too).

He pulled his sticky hand out of mine, reaching out to pull open one of the drawers, placing his palm flat on the bare wood inside and closing his eyes. “Was meant to be underwear,” he said.

I was long past the point of worrying what any of the other customers might think.

“Good use of a drawer,” I told him.

He opened the drawer next to it. “Socks,” he said.

“Indeed,” I replied.

“Never was,” he said, closing the drawer, hesitating over the wardrobe door before opening that too. “School uniform probably,” he said. “Shirts?”

Now, that was a question, and I was ready for it. “Not hoodies,” I said. These days, Tony was keen on his hoodies. Not that he had too much choice in the matter. Today’s was a skull and barbed wire affair. The kind of thing you might have thought was for a heavy metal band or some such, but I knew was, in reality, an ersatz knock-off produced in a sweatshop somewhere for one of the cheap clothing stores. Maybe a decade or two back. Like all Tony’s clothes, it would have come from Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation or any one of the other massed charity shops that now made up the High Street.

“Not hoodies,” Tony said. “White, you think?”

“Depends on the school,” I told him. “But, yeah, white’s usual.”

“Could be blue.”

“Could be.”

“You think a blazer? School crest on the pocket?”

I’d thought this before. He remembered me saying so. Like he remembered everything else I ever said to him.

“I think perhaps a blazer.”

“With a motto.”

“Very likely.”

Tony nodded, reassured either by my words or by the colour. It was sometimes hard to tell. What I did know, though, was that he needed his moment, his oneness with the wood. A phrase he would not have found amusing even if I had tried for the euphemism. As I say, a literal chap, Tony.

Literal and yet always the same phrasing.

“I could have been a tallboy.”

And maybe he could, I thought. Why not let him have that belief, I thought. There were worse beliefs to have in the world, I thought.

“Home?” I asked him, when we’d been there long enough, when he’d determined today wasn’t the day for the library PC and the kids shows.

“The House,” he told me, as he always did.

No, it wasn’t for me to tell him that he couldn’t have been a combination chest of drawers and wardrobe. It depended very much on what a combination chest of drawers and wardrobe meant to him. He was, after all, the one with the definitions. I watched him riffling through his dictionaries on the bus on the way back to the House on the edge of town. Where Jan and Dave were on today, at least until shift change, and where his friends Nick and Roger would most likely be playing chess in the communal living room with precisely none of the right pieces.

“Can come in,” he told me at the door, because there were minutes left, because Jan and Dave were out back smoking something other than tobacco, because the House was otherwise quiet apart from the sound of the knackered pump on the fish tank and the squeal of the fridge in the kitchen that had seen better decades.

This was new, so of course I accepted. Why not accept the offer?

There were plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t.

There was part of me that wanted to see how many dictionaries equalled a Tony number of dictionaries.

Several hundred, it turned out, by the looks of it.

And I wanted to know if there’d be any clue as to the tallboy.

“Not how they’d have done my room,” Tony told me. Which was a lot in one go for him. He was looking at the dictionaries. He was contemplating the new dictionaries to somehow add to his wall of dictionaries.

“Not the furniture they’d have chosen,” Tony told me. And the sadness was, in the House, no one had really chosen any of it. Just as they hadn’t chosen him.

And vice versa.

“No,” I agreed with him. So here we were, I thought. Heading to tallboy territory, I thought. This might be my only opportunity to find out what it meant to him, I thought.

And Tony looked up at the tower of dictionaries again. Several hundred was not an exaggeration. There was no hope of putting today’s purchases at the top without help.

“I could have been a tallboy,” he told me, still looking up, his back to me, so it was a moment before I saw his shoulders move. And I thought the emotion had got too much for him. Thinking back to the room he might have had in the house with the parents he had never had. Forty-something years ago now. Maybe longer. It was so difficult to work out his age. Whatever happened had been so very long ago, but how much of it did he still carry with him?

I moved towards him, thought of putting a hand out to “there, there” him in precisely the way I shouldn’t do as his supporter.

And then his shoulders heaved and what I took to be a Tony brand asthmatic sob was most definitely not a Tony brand asthmatic sob.

He was laughing, the bugger.

“Yeah, I could have been a tallboy,” he said. They weren’t even shelves. Just books piled as high as physics would allow them to be piled. Which was a hell of a lot higher than anyone might have expected. “But I’d settle for a ladder,” he said.

Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018's "Not So Funny Now" about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Red Fez. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains frustratingly as unproduced as it was the last time he updated this biography. So here it is, line by line (we're going to be here a while): "What happened to your lovely new uniform, then?" "My robes met with a slight accident, if you must know. In the members' entrance." "Ouch. Nasty."

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