World War K: The Rise of Keith by Grace Hudson

The streets were quiet as I walked the short distance from my flat to the local dive. My footfalls were soft on the pavement as I wound my way through the parklands. The trains seemed to be running, yet no business suited, stressed out commuters crossed my path.

A possum scurried on to the concrete walkway, craning its neck to blink at me. I remained still, waiting for its next move. The possum twitched, regarding me suspicously. It faked to the right before scampering to the left, alighting the nearest tree. I continued on, the possum eyeing me from its perch, claws gripping the narrow branch.

The streetlamps framed the edge of the path as I emerged on to the main street, looking both ways for the peak hour traffic that failed to materialise. I passed shop windows, deserted, save for the usual mannequins draped in their second-hand finery.

The bar was dark, a few customers huddled in a corner, obscured from view. I scanned the room, spotting a familiar face. I blinked once, twice, expecting him to fade from view yet he remained, propped up on a bar stool, black boot wedged against the railing at the base.

He wore a long, tailored jacket, purple scarf wound loosely around his neck, speckles of silver glinting in the row of downlights.

His eyes, almost black in this light, squinted up at me, smudged heavily with eyeliner. His forehead was bound with a blue and white paisley bandana, grey wisps dangling in his heavily caked eyelashes. Crinkles formed in forked patterns on his face, spreading from his eyes, winding a route around his cheeks, bracketing his too-white smile.

“Take a seat love, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I gripped the side of the stool, ordering a beer and hoisting myself on to the scratched vinyl covering. “You’re… how is this possible? What are you doing here?”

“Which question do you want me to answer? Yeah, I’m Keith, Keith Richards. Taking a break from the tour, mixing with the little people, like yourself.”

I searched for a profound question, a question befitting the stature of the man, a question appropriate for a serendipitous meeting such as this.

“So, what are you doing here?” Great, that was eloquent.

“Having a beer, what does it look like?”

I scratched behind my ear, struggling for the right words.

“Yes. Having a beer. Good.” Those weren’t the right words.

“Sit down, love, you’re making me nervous.” He drained the rest of his beer, tapping the bar with a twisted, bony finger. “Where is that bloody barman?” A muffled crash came from the doorway behind the bar. The barman had disappeared for now and there were no other staff to be seen.

Keith leaned over the bar, flicking the tap on the VB. He tilted the glass like a pro, allowing the liquid to fill without frothing over the edge.

“Something about Australians I’ve noticed. Nice people, just can’t pull a beer, it’s an art you see. Tilt the glass, tilt the glass. So much more to it than that.”

I leaned my chin on my fists, unable to process the fact that Keith Richards was here, telling me the intricacies of pulling a beer.

“You could learn a lot from me, love. I know a lot of trivia about useless stuff.”

“What, you mean like the secret of secret sauce?”

“Everybody knows that, it’s mayonnaise and tomato sauce. What planet have you been living on?”

“Okay, how about Rory Gallagher? Is it true?”

“What, you mean that thing where the acid in his sweat destroyed guitar strings?”

“Yes, that.”

“All true. Rusted ’em right off. Same with the paint on his guitars. You know he nearly became a Rolling Stone?”

“Really?”

“Yep, Mick and I flew him out to Holland and everything.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“He wanted to sing. It just wouldn’t have worked out. Plus he told Bob Geldof that he didn’t want put up with all the bollocks from me and Mick.”

“That would have been amazing.”

“It would have been crap. Rory had his own thing going on. Nobody was going to mess with that.”

“Yeah, I guess. What do I know? I’m not a rock star.”

“I’m not the real Keith Richards, love.”

My skin prickled. I studied his face, gnarled and leathery. The kind of skin that a lizard or perhaps a crocodile would be proud to own. The kind of skin that…

Looked dead already.

“You haven’t been paying attention, love. They used him as a template, you see. Something about resilience. You know what they say…”

“The only ones left standing after the apocalypse are cockroaches and Keith Richards.” My voice seemed to come from far away, disembodied sounds rising from my mouth.

“Well done love, you’re not as dopey as you look. You know, tonight’s the night. You’re late to the party.”

The town hall clock struck, sounds reverberating through my brain. I counted the chimes, hearing the sound of the guitar from “Hell’s Bells” interspersed between the counts.

One, two, three, four, five, six.

I turned to glance at the rest of the patrons in the bar.

“Alright, love,” came the collective chant.

Their faces were pale, spongy and mottled, hollowed-out eyes encased in darkened sockets. Sores had begun to form on lips, teeth had begun to blacken, fingernails lengthened to a point, blooming with dark bruises.

How did I not notice this before? Keith in a blue dress, Keith in jeans and a t-shirt, Keith in a floral nightgown. They are all Keith. They always were.

As they closed in around me, gnarled hands reaching out towards my face, tags of skin flapping in time with the clunking and whirring of the malfunctioning air-conditioner, beads of condensation glistening on the outside of my glass, my last thought came as a surprise.

I wonder if I’ll finally be able to play that riff from ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’

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