The Gift

He arrived half an hour early. He sat on the bench on the platform and held his hands in his lap. The cold, January air nipped his ankles and nape. There was no noise of cars. No bird sang. He sat and looked upon the country hills cast out before him, green and lush.

An older couple arrived. They shared the weight of a travel bag, a handle in each hand, and both of them put it down with a great sigh. They sat on the bench beside. The woman opened her handbag and withdrew tissues. She dabbed her eyes with the corners before the folding it twice and wiping her cheeks. The man sat with his wallet in front of him. He opened it for a brief moment to look at a photo of a young girl. He closed it and opened it once more to see if she was still there.

“Have you got the tickets?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“And the change for the bus when we get there?”

“Yes.”

“When are the flowers arriving?”

“On time. I told you. Everything is sorted. Don’t worry.” 

“Thank you.”

“That’s okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright.”

Time passed in silence. The man did not move nor did the couple say anything more. They all held their heads low in quiet thought. Fallen leaves lay still on the platform. No wind came to disturb their setting.

The train pulled in. It crept towards the platform, the two carriages blocking the view of the country behind as it went. The windows approached and not one contained a person. Instead they gave a short gallery and framed the trees, hedgerows, and hills that lay behind. Before the train came to a full stop, an attendant leapt from the doors and walked with the train as if a horse to a stable. Then he strode off to one side and lit a cigarette. The couple quickly embarked and sat themselves down. Through the window they became a new portrait: a woman breaking into tears, a man holding her hands in his.

He watched them both from the bench. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Still, no birds sang, no trees rustled. Even the train had become mute and peaceful.

The attendant stood gazing upwards. When he drew the cigarette to the butt, he stamped it out and lit another. Eyeing the man on the bench, he made his way over and stood before him.

“You getting on?” he said, speaking with the cigarette bobbing between his lips.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“Well,” he said, taking the cigarette from his mouth, “this is the only train that stops at this platform. Eight o’ clock every Monday. It takes a two hours to get to the city. Unless you want to wait another week, I suggest you get on this train.”

“How long will you wait now?”

The attendant looked up and down the platform. “Looks like it’s only you to wait for.” He glanced at a pocket watch. “You’ve got one minute.”

“The thing is, I’m not sure if I want to go.”

“Well. Are you going for business or pleasure?”

“Neither.”

“Have you got a place to stay?”

“No.”

“Who are you meeting?”

“No one.”

“Well.” He had a long last drag and stamped the cigarette. “Not sure if I can help you with that.”

“That’s okay.”

“Alright then.” He said. “Two minutes,” and he returned to the carriage.

The man leaned forward onto his knees and held his head in his hands. He watched the last embers escape the cigarette on the ground, the wind gently picking at the blackened tobacco. The small orange glow faded to nothing.

He opened his satchel bag and went through his belongings. He had money, a book, cigarettes, a flask of coffee, a travel pass, a clementine, and a neat white box. He sat the box on his lap and opened it. The pen inside was struck with sunlight and the silver was bright and clean and perfect. He held it as if he were about to write.

It was a gift from years ago. He remembered first unwrapping the box. He removed the lid and inside it lay silver and complete, just as it did now. That same evening was the first time he touched the nib to paper. Thank you, he wrote. Over the years the pen had translated his thoughts, ideas, questions and feelings. The pen had composed poetry and song. It had created notes in margins and sketched flowers and insects he loved. The pen had filled crosswords on sunny afternoons and found answers to quizzes in pubs. The pen had made lists and letters, made names on invitations and poured out words of love and tenderness. And in the last of it’s duty, the pen had written him the note. The same note that he had practiced writing in his mind a dozen times. The same note that he penned through the dark hours of last night. The same note that he signed and kissed and left folded on his pillowcase.

That chapter had finished. Dawn had long broken. The day had already begun. A breeze arrived on the platform, clearing the path before him of leaves and cigarette stubs and dust. The train gave a short hiss. A sparrow called, perched on the high branch of the tree nearby. He looked up at it’s wings, it’s bold, brown body. The solitary bird, he said to himself.

He placed the pen back into the box and left it on the bench. He buttoned up his bag, gave a nod to the attendant, and stepped onto the train.

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Joseph Pues

In February, I published a poem called Joseph Pues. It has come to this:


The Man Who Calls

I spoke to him again this morning. The conversation went:

“Hello?”

“Joseph?”

“This isn’t Joseph.”

“Joseph Pues?”

“This isn’t Joseph Pues.”

“Joseph?”

“This isn’t Joseph Pues. He doesn’t live here.”

“Can you pass a message please?”

“I don’t know where he lives –

“For Joseph Pues”

“ – or who he is.”

“I have a message for him.”

“I don’t know who he is.”

“Tell him I miss him.”

“I don’t know where he lives. I’m sorry. Joseph Pues doesn’t live here.”

“Oh, okay.”

It’s frequent, now. Each call I can tell his whiskey breath on his slurred words, some broken and hiccuped and some urgent and thought.

My neighbour upstairs told me someone called Joseph did once live in my flat. His surname unknown. “A kind lad,” she told me, “a nice boy who helped me read the gas meter. He kept the music down, he read a lot, and he would always leave for work before I did.”

I remember the landlord saying I could move in right away because the flat was left so clean. I’m not sure who this Joseph person was, but I can guess. Of course, it’s all open to interpretation. To subject. Now, I cleaned my flat before I moved out. My landlord was nice. He paid the water bill, called the exterminator when wasps found their way into the bathroom, so I felt it was only kind to clean any mess I made in a space he owned. Perhaps Joseph did this. But I also left my last flat heartbroken, single, alone, hungry for a new life, desperate to rid the old. I took bleach and soap and sanitiser to each surface, to doorknobs and windows and cooker hobs and cupboards so not even my scent would linger, not even my skin cells, and no one would know I was here. It felt good to do that, to cleanse a space I lived, erase history, redirect my post to a new address, cancel landline, internet.

Did Joseph Pues do the same? A change of life? Was this a quick escape?To disconnect from everything, and everyone, he was made of? Christ, who knows where he is, why he’s gone, what effort he exerted to shed identity and place and what office he hoped to occupy.

And for what reason, to avoid this man who quivers and weeps over the phone? He calls in the morning and afternoon and midnight for him. What could he have done, what sin committed or promise broken sent Joseph Pues to a void free of telephone directories and public registers?

Is Joseph Pues even alive?

My neighbour upstairs mentioned that she hasn’t heard or seen of Joseph since, despite him saying, before he left, that he would keep in touch. It’s been six months now.

He called again tonight. The man who calls.

“Is – is Joseph Pues there please?”

“He isn’t. He doesn’t live here. I don’t know who he is. I don’t know where he lives.”

Paradise Lost – A Short Story

The boy walked down Graham Street at midnight. He was fifteen years old, wearing a raincoat, sports sneakers, and a black eye the size of a golf ball. On his shoulder he carried a bag full of clothes, books, and a wedged in his back pocket a wallet holding two hundred dollars of household chores and summer job pay. It was a heavy rain, harsh and unforgiving, and it came down hard upon the boy, hard upon his brow, his shoulders, upon his legs as he marched. A car came towards him. As it passed, he shied his face from the headlights, and quickened his pace after.

At the junction, he took to the shelter of a bus stop, just as the weather was ready to lash again in a whip of rain. Thunder rumbled through the clouds, the wind picked at his clothes. He clutched his arms and shivered in the cold.

An old man sat opposite in the cove of an overpass, nestled in the concrete where the road left the land. His slim figure red in the warmth of a fire burning in a sprawl of wood. He saw the boy up the hill, alone, small against the hills behind. With his fingers in his mouth, he blew a sharp whistle that pierced the night, and gestured to the fire when he held the boy’s attention. The boy thought about it, checking his watch, looking for the passing cars. Then, he left the bus stop and jogged down the dirt bank, careless of treading the pooling puddles. The bag slid from his shoulder and he sat himself opposite the old man.

“Thanks for letting me join you. I appreciate it.” The boy held his hands out toward the blaze and found his breath.

“No problem. There’s enough warmth to share.”

The old man was wrapped in an overcoat, torn at the pockets and collar. His beard draped over the top buttons, full and thick and forgotten. Through his shoes poked his toes, black and dirty as coal.

Once the boy had calmed his shivers, he tied his shoes, counted the dollars in his wallet, and checked his watch. The old man gave him a long hard look. “You leaving town?”

“Yes, sir. Going south. There’s a bus I’m catching. It comes by in about forty minutes.”

“You must be catching the last one.”

“That’s right.”

As the boy leaned toward the fire, the light brought out the purple hue around his eye, strong and thick in the colour of a passion fruit. His eye half closed in the swell. The old man studied it.

“Where you heading?”

“South. Lexington.”

“You meeting anyone? In Lexington?”

“What does it matter?”

“How old are you?”

“Old enough. What does it matter?” The boy asked again.

“Well. I don’t think you should be out by yourself at this time of night.”

“I’m just fine.”

“Okay.” The old man stirred a cardboard box behind. Lining the inside was a soft blanket, a bed for his few possessions. A framed photograph, a book of poetry, cigars and mints in a small tin. He rummaged out a six pack of beer, peeled one from the plastic and opened it. The clean rasp of the metal shot like a loud whisper.

“Someone dropped these beers to me earlier. There’s some nice people out here. Still cold.”

“Can I have one of those?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I’m twenty-one.”

“No, you’re not.”

“But can I have one? Please?”

“Hell. I shouldn’t,” but then he thought about it, and tossed the boy a can. “Cops come by these parts near every night now. They come down here and tell me to put out the fire. They’re not happy when I’m drinking, neither. They won’t be happy if they catch you with one.”

“They won’t.” The boy opened the can and took a sip. His face recoiled to the bitterness. He took another and recoiled again.

“At least put it against your shiner, for Christ’s sake.” The boy brought the tin to his eye. The can dwarfed his hand. His fingers barely made the girth. As the fire shrank in height, the old man took a handful of sticks from his side and fed them to the fire. The dirt bank glowed with the passing of cars, some cruising back to town, some speeding across the overpass. The gruff chug of a truck passed, stirring the newspapers, the leaves, and dust.

“Where do you live?” He asked, gesturing his head up toward the hills where the pine were freckled with lights from windows.

“Cedar.”

“That’s a nice area. Nice houses.” The boy gave a nod and then a shrug, as if to imply he’d never thought about it. “They still have that coffee shop on the corner? With the Nigerian lady?”

“Yeah.”

“I always liked her.”

“Yeah, she’s nice.”

“And those cherry donuts?”

“Yeah. Chocolate ones, too.”

“I liked those cherry ones.”

“Yeah, they’re good.”

“So, what happened?” he asked, gesturing to the bruise. The boy kept quiet. He took another sip from the beer, and then put it down between his feet, accepting the bitterness. “You don’t have to say. You don’t have to tell me what happened. It helps to talk. I’ve found.” He gave it a minute. “I heard the rain is going to get worse this week.”

The boy bit his lip, scratched his chin, careful of the acne. “You know, it’s not easy being a kid. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. My parents, they want me to do well. Told me I had to put in the extra hours after school. They made me work so hard for grades I knew I could never get. Exams go by and I did even worse than last year. I knew it when the pen touched the paper, before I wrote anything down. I knew it then I was gonna fail. I tried so hard but I knew it.”

“School’s tough.”

“They saw my grades. They got mad. Mom starts shouting. Dad shouts louder. Me and him get into a fight. It all got crazy.” The boy brought the can back to his eye.

“You ever fought before?”

“No. We argue. A lot. This was the worst time.”

“You’ll be okay.” The old man tried to work a smile from the boy, to hint of hope or reassurance. But nothing came. The thunder had subsided but the rain still fell, heavy and loud. The cold rivalled the fire, and the boy held his arms in his lap.

“I used to live somewhere nice. Not far from here. Had the whole lot. The perfect life, you might say. Family. Friends. Money. Strength. But how’d it come to this, right? I can see it in your face.” He drained the beer, placed the empty can quietly by his side and opened another. “You could say I had paradise. But something happened. I wasn’t treated fairly. Now, I don’t believe in things having to be fair in life. That’s not how life works. But I was unhappy. I said some things I shouldn’t have said. Did some things I shouldn’t have done. It cost me everything. I was cast to the streets. I lost my family. My friends. Christ, it all happened so fast. Couldn’t tell you the details. I don’t remember most of it. I hit the whiskey hard and that was that.”

“You doing alright?” The boy asked. “A stupid question, sorry.”

“No, you’re okay. I am. It may be hell but you can make it heaven. It’s in the mind. Not in the dirt. You could have it all yet still be unhappy. And you could have nothing and find yourself content. I got a few friends, all similar situation. We do alright together.” Graffiti and tags covered the concrete behind the man. Scribbles of black and blue, the scrawled calligraphy of the local mavericks. Eddy loves Mary. Bobby does it best. Rebel Angels.

A bus stopped at the shelter, hissing to a halt. Two people alighted to the chime of the opening doors, walked together up the hill until the dark swallowed them whole. The soft amber lights of the bus vanished as it drove down the road.

“Next one’s mine.”

The old man thought about the words he was about to say. He took another sip from his beer, swished a mouthful, and then he moved closer to the boy.

“I don’t want to play the card of the wise old man. Heck, I’m not wise in the slightest, but I know what it’s like to be your age. Not so keen on authority, right? That comes from parents being too strict, usually. Or too soft. It’s a hard balance. You got a strict father?”

“Yeah. Real strict.”

“Mine was, too. At the time, when I was young, I thought had it the worst. My father was a hard man. A hard man. A man of discipline, of rules, routine. He spent the whole of his life like that. Tightly wound with no give. One day I resisted his word, made a stance. Spoke for myself. I stood up for something I wanted, something that I thought was right. I think that, looking back, all I wanted was an apology from him, or for him to show some sort of acknowledgement of his mistakes. I didn’t need to rebel. I didn’t need to quit. I made the decision in the heat of the moment and was too stubborn not to follow through. But, I would have made a very different decision that day if someone had just listened.” The old man looked down to his shoes. The shine had long gone and the material had split at the seams.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting an apology.”

“Alright kid. If you do, please don’t ignore it. It takes a lot for someone to apologise. To know when they’re at fault.”

“I don’t think it’ll happen.”

“Well. You come by my fire anytime. If you’re around.”

A smile broke from the boy. “Thank you.”

“I live a high life of luxury being homeless. There are no chains. I do not serve. I reign.” He gave a smile to the boy. He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a carton of cigarettes and lit one in the fire.

“Can I have one?”

“You ever smoked before?”

“No.”

“Alright.” He gave the boy the cigarette. It wobbled in his fingers like a glowing worm as the boy turned the stick, careful of the burning tip. He took a drag and then coughed. He tried to breathe in and coughed again, hard into his hand. The old man gave a laugh as the boy handed back the cigarette, chuckling himself.

“Not quite James Dean.”

“Not quite,” the boy added.

“So, this coffee shop. I used to go two, three times a week. I’d always go when the Nigerian lady was working. She’d always have this brilliant smile when I came in. God, her voice could melt you. She’d say ‘Good morning! How are we?’ I like how she said ‘we,’ like we were friends. I thought about asking her out, you know. That’s between you and me.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I ask myself that all the time.”

“Too nervous?”

“A little. She had another guy lurking over her. He drank coffee everyday. Seemed like he favoured every word from her mouth. I never knew if she liked him back. I didn’t want to interfere in anything.”

“That’s Gus.”

“Gus?”

“Yeah. Bit of a creep? Tall with glasses? Everyone knows him. Well, knew him. Left town about a six months ago. No one has seen him since. Some people think he died. Some people think he quit chasing a girl who didn’t love him back.”

“No kidding.”

“She must not have liked him. She’s been as happy as ever.”

“Hm,” he said, interested. “Maybe I’ll have to go back and ask her out.”

The bank behind began to glow. It grew and grew and quickly bloomed into two headlights. They rolled over the bank and bored the dirt decline. The car turned toward the fire, slowed and came to a stop. The headlights dimmed and inside a policeman appeared, lit by the dashboard. He stared hard ahead. The old man gave a heavy sigh, stubbing the cigarette into the dirt, tucking the beer behind his back.

The policeman stepped out of the car and approached the pair. “Joseph?” He said. He approached with cautious steps. “Joseph.”

The boy turned. “Shit.”

“Thank god. I went to your room and couldn’t find you. I’ve been driving all over town. Your Mom is worried sick. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

The father stepped closer. The light from the fire brought out a bruise on his temple, poppy and blue. whilst the boy nursed his knuckles. The father remained quiet as the boy decided to take another sip from the beer, this time with no recoil.

“So, what are you go to say this time?”

“What do you mean, Joe?”

“You know it as well as I do. How this goes. We disagree, we argue, you give a speech about how I’m wrong, how I’m at fault, and I get sent to my room. Then it happens again. We argue some more, you shout over me, I get grounded, you give some big talk the next day and you think things go back to normal.” The boy stood to face his father, matching his height. He held his bag in his hand, the bag that held everything, with the fire burning hot behind him. “What do you have to say this time? What can you say that’s different? What order of words have you ready to convince me to come home?” The boy’s voice shook, rattled with anger.

The father stayed quiet. His eyes to the ground, thumbing his hands.

“What do you have to say? It’s your word, your rules. It always has been. It always will be. Is it, you can’t accept me? Or don’t want to? I’m not the same as you when you were a kid. I’m not going to get straight A’s, fly through college and land a job on the other end. No amount of shouting or anger will help me and you don’t ever seem to understand that.” The boy took a deep breath, tightened his fists, felt the blood race through his body. “What do you have to say?”

The father looked up. He met the fierce gaze of his son. One he was used to. He spoke slowly.

“Nothing. I’ve nothing to say. You know I’ve got a bad temper, and it’s no excuse. It’s taken far too long for me to realise that there’s no excuse. I never tell you about work and what I see. But I do it to protect you and your Mom. I do it so you both feel safe. But I’m so stupid to have brought it home with me. Through impatience. To have done the opposite. To make your home a place you don’t want to be. I’m so sorry – I’m so sorry I hurt you.” His voice quivered. The rain came down hard upon him. “I don’t want to talk. I don’t need to. I want to listen. I want to hear your problems, not project mine. The whole thing about your grades, I was wrong. None of that matters. I don’t care, it’s not important. You’ll be fine no matter what happens in school. You’re smart, you’re quick. You’ll be fine. I just – I want you to be alright with me. So I will always listen. From now on.”

Behind them, the last bus approached. The boy tightened his grip on the strap of his bag, felt his heart thudding in his chest. The bus slowed at the shelter and then accelerated with a quiet hum. He watched it pass and vanish into the night.

The boy had almost forgot the old man sat at his side. He gave him a look. The old man gave him a faint smile. One of reassurance, one of comfort. Silence enveloped the three until the boy shouldered his bag and walked towards his father.

“Okay.”

“Okay,” he replied. The boy opened the car door, sat himself down. Shotgun.

Walking to the other side of the car, the father finally looked at the old man. His eyes glanced to the fire, to the beer, to the stubbed cigarette, and then to the print in the dirt where his son had been sitting. How small it looked before the flame, beneath the overpass, dwarfed by the concrete buildings nearby. The father gave a small nod to the old man and got into the car. A beat of relief, a measure of repose filled the air.

The car reversed and drove back over the hill. The sound of the engine faded into the night, leaving the old man alone in the glow of the fire. He was sad to be alone but happy as well to know he would never see the two again. The embers licked the wood, wrapped and twisted around the bark above a belly of yellow and orange and red. His eyes held the light, as they once did, many years ago. He thought of the Nigerian lady who worked in the coffee shop. The heavy regret imbedded his stomach of not remembering her name, not being able to say it out loud and see how it spilled from his tongue.

He hovered his hands to the flames. They tickled his palms, his fingertips. He held them there all night, as he always did.

On Cormac McCarthy

 

cormac-mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, to put it simply, was absolutely, positively outstanding. I recently finished Cities of the Plain, after having read The Crossing and All The Pretty Horses before that, and I’m still in that state of awe when you depart from a great story, which I’m sure will carry for at least another month. If you’re looking for a new big adventure, I’d highly recommend the trilogy.

Anyone who’s familiar with McCarthy will know his style. He produces these long, epic sentences completely unaided by punctuation and instead weaves clever conjunctions throughout his lexis, and the lines often range to half a page long yet still manage to leave you with a breath. As well, he’s able to give depth and beauty to the simple day-to-day activities in short, punchy prose that flourishes more and more by the word. There was never a dull moment.

I’ve read The Road and No Country for Old Men before and whilst those both were unforgettable and very much emotional journeys, the weight of these three books hits you hard; relentless and devastating, like a speed-of-light locomotive.

Speaking of trains, here’s an extract from the final book. This isn’t an example of his long, signature sentences (‘polysyndeton’ if you want to be technical) but instead how well he is able to paint a picture and create an atmosphere –  something else he’s rather good at doing. There are far better examples of his near perfect writing but this really hit the spot for me. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.

I’ll add, for anyone else who has read The Crossing, the final page completely tore me to pieces.


Cities of the Plain – page 116

It was quiet in the house and it was quiet in the country about. He sat smoking. The cooling stove ticked. Far away in the hills behind the house a coyote called. When they had used to spend winters at the old house on the southeasternmost section of the ranch the last thing he would hear before he fell asleep at night was the bawl of the train eastbound out of El Paso. Sierra Blanca, Van Horn, Marfa, Alpine, Marathon. Rolling across the blue prairie through the night and on toward Langtry and Del Rio. The white bore of the headlamp lighting up the desert scrub and the eyes of trackside cattle floating in the dark like coals. The herders in the hills standing with their serapes about their shoulders watching the train pass below and the little desert foxes stepping into the darkened roadbed to sniff after it where the warm steel rails lay humming in the night.

Proving Human

The way home is long and narrow and the forest runs along either side of the road. It’s hard to keep both eyes on the road. I can never help but stare to the sides of passing trees, backdropped by the blanket pitch that collects them in gloom and secrecy. It reminds me of a zoetrope my father gave me for a birthday. When I was younger, I imagined a character, normally something I had seen from television, running between the trunks, fast and fleeting, as if they were printed on projector slides.

I approached the infamous corner before the bridge. It has quite the reputation for catching drivers off guard. The one-way road without dips or bumps, lit by moonlight, provokes one to be generous with their speed. A few times a month someone would find themselves at the end in the mud. It’s never claimed a life. Most of the time it’s a few bruises, a few cuts, a wrecked car and a lesson learnt.

The ground was icy so I stopped the car before the road took me further. I got out to see how much of the tarmac was covered, to save me drifting into the barrier. I always carry a torch on me, ever since the wife worried herself sick about me coming down this route in the later hours. What if you get stuck, she would say, what if you get stuck in the forest at night? What if you get lost or the car breaks down and you crash? So I take a torch to keep her happy.

The ice continued, thick and black, glistening in the torchlight, right up to the corner barrier ahead. Of course, it looked as if it had been knocked down and rebuilt a dozen times. The bridge, which spans across the lake, was quiet. An old thing, people call it, and only named by locals as The Bridge in their casual conversations.

There’s peace out in the forest; far from civilisation; no homes, no buildings, no factories or farms. There’s nothing, for miles. I savoured the silence and took a second to relish the absence of the city life.

Where the new metal of the barrier meets the old stone of the bridge, that part had gone. A huge chunk of the wall was knocked through and the metal was sharp and jagged as if it had been struck by lightning. A pair of tire tracks ran between them and when my mind clicked, I jogged forward and looked over the edge. The air was still and the night was calm and the water glowed with a set of hazard lights, warm and red beneath the skin, and my heart felt shot. I sprinted back to the car for my phone, sliding the way on the ice, and then raced back towards the bridge, dialling as I went.

“Hello – police, I need the police. And an ambulance.”

“What’s your emergency?”

“A car – a car has gone off the road. Into the water. The car’s in the water.”

“Where are-”

“I’m on the Adley Bridge. Just from Compton Village. It’s gone through the railings. The car’s in the water.”

“They’re already on their way, sir. Where’s the driver? Is the driver in the car?”

“I don’t know. I don’t – The car’s in the water.

“Sir -”

“I’ve got to save them.”

I dropped the phone and rushed myself down the bank, footing my way in the small shelves of dirt and mud. I didn’t hear the crash, nor did I recognise the back of the car from the journey. God knows how long it had been in there, submerged and silent.

I lost the ground beneath my feet and tumbled forward, somersaulting into the water. It was quick to seep through my clothes, to catch my skin, and the cold caught my breath, but I got myself up and waded through to the car. The lake wasn’t deep, only then did I realise, as the nose of the car was balanced a few metres below me, with its tail end on top of it near the surface. I held my breath, took my head under and swam toward the front door, aided by the weight of my jeans and boots.

I could only just make out the shadowy figure of an old woman inside. Her arms hung above her head. Her face calm, her eyes closed.

The door wouldn’t open. I tugged as hard as I could, and hit the window with my fist, only to sound a dull thud of weakness. My lungs depleted in flurries of bubbles and I resurfaced. I shouted for help. The odds of someone else being nearby were low, the nearest home was over ten miles away, but I shouted, and sent my voice as far as I could.

It couldn’t have been more than a second after when a splash erupted in front of me. The water threw itself up and showered quickly. A head emerged in the middle of it. Stern and strong eyes looked at me, the eyes of a man with a shaggy beard and long hair clamped to his head. He took a deep breath and went under.

I followed him down. In two broad strokes he was already at the car, his silhouette cast by the taillights. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, hard object and pierced the window in a muted crack. It shattered peacefully. He bore his arms through, his elbow forcing out the corner panes that stuck together. The shards sailed and spun in every direction as he wrangled his arms inside and pulled the woman out, pushing his feet against the door and rising upwards.

I surfaced and crawled to the bank. The man hauled the woman up by her shoulders and when she was close, I pulled on her jacket and dragged her back onto land. I was sure she was dead, her body was limp and cold and pale. The man pressed his ear to her mouth and then pumped down on her chest with his hands, his fingers locked at the end of his pillar arms. Her body shuddered with each press, her head rocking as the man continued. Minutes passed, the man rhythmic. I watched, helpless and afraid. The woman rattled and coughed, water spewed from her mouth and ran down her chin and she let out an old, long groan.

Call it a miracle. A woman survives underwater for a ridiculous amount of time. Call it another miracle, that a man jumped from the bridge and brought her back from the grips of a watery grave. To this day, I still don’t believe how she made it.

The man collapsed backwards and the air filled with deep breaths from all of us. The woman with her head on my coat, the man sitting in the dirt.

I knew the woman. I recognised her when I shone the torch on her face for signs of life. Her name was Martha Andrews. She used to be a gardener for the rugby grounds. Rumours told she turned to alcohol after she was sacked, and I didn’t refute them after her rich, whiskey breath travelled upwards and hit my nostrils.

The man’s breathing slowed and became silent. He cleared his hair and looked me straight in the eyes, holding a blank stare that spoke fatigue and tiredness. His face, worn and leathered. And then, he quietly got himself up, and made his way into the forest, his coat dripping as he went. His footsteps softened and soon dissolved with the crunch of sticks and leaves as the sirens began to fill the night.

“Thank you,” Martha said, staring up at me with a trembling lip. “Thank you.”

And I said nothing.

In My Footprints

VOC-0011 29:03:2078CCB148 

“You’d like it here. It’s very red. Remember when we went to Fired Earth? Spent ages looking through those shades of red for the living room. You, heh, you were all engrossed in them and I kept saying ‘Red Room.’ It was backwards for ‘murder’, sort of, didn’t really work. Wasn’t actually that funny.” The landscape stretched far ahead. He turned around and counted his steps. “Not much else to do.” He placed the beacon deep into the dirt. The drill burrowed into the rock and out of the top popped a small bulb. It gave three small blips of light and then switched off.

“I’m… I’m just heading back. I think it’s about a four mile… four mile walk. Landed a little bit off course but I don’t mind the stroll. You know I followed you? You left after we got home. You said I wasn’t any help with the paints and I didn’t know what to say. Had a bad choice of words. I said something like, ‘Are you going to Moorder me now?’ I don’t know why I said it, but you left and… You left and I followed you. I know you said it’s for you, your moment to get away, get a breather. I knew you were mad and you would have killed me if you know I was behind. You went past Mike’s place. He said hello and you ignored him. I wanted to catch up and say I was sorry. I didn’t get a chance to tell you the shade you picked out was… well, beautiful. I know it’s only paint and it’s only a room, that’s what you said, but you had a such good taste for making it feel… making it look good. It made me not care about watching those programmes with you, it was nice to just sit in the room. These are supposed to be journal entries and here I am in my first one talking about our bloody living room.”

He looked behind. The tip of the beacon poked out above a small pile of rocks. Leading back he saw the two trials of footprints, the one returning veered left and right. He sat down with his back to the ship.

“I wish I could follow you here. I don’t know what I’m doing. You’d think it’d be great. Win the survival lottery. Wear the title of saviour of humanity. I’d trade it all for those two extra months with you.”

He titled his head. The sun bright above. A trial of smoke tore through the sky with a small, white shuttle leading it. “I wish you were here, we could meet the neighbours together.”

VOC-0011 29:03:2078CCB148  – end

Change

He’d come in everyday at 9:10am. He’d slowly make his way up to me, tilt his hat and ask how I was; it normally followed by a chesty cough. When I was getting the bag ready, I’d hear him slowly make his way around the store, coughing as he went, dragging his stick along the floor. He’d return with the same three things: a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a bar of caramel chocolate, the latter for the wife, as he always said. He’d then ask for a pack of 40 Camel cigarettes, and it got so often that I had them scanned, bagged and on the till for him when he returned, sometimes even before he had come into the shop. Every time when I gave him the bag, he’d say “I’m going to kick the habit, I’m going to kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow.” He’d laugh, cough, and wish me a good day.

Anyway, the rest of the day was punctuated with visits from the same locals. Marnie, from the charity shop, came in and bought her fruit and nuts; every now and then she’d include the latest diet magazine from Good Health. William came in from the post office for his lunch. He always looked so dishevelled and tired and would always be fishing out pennies to pay for his plain cheese sandwich. Franco, from the restaurant, came in and always bought a lottery ticket. He always said “Make sure you give me the winning one this time.” That got old pretty quick. He owned the restaurant next door, which was never busy. It got slated by Ramsay. Then, just before we closed up, Higgins would come in again and ask for another pack of Camels. Had to give it to him, even though I had already cashed up the till, so just handed him the packet and told him to bring the money the next day.

You get stuck into a routine, working there. When you see the same people everyday, the small changes in their appearances and purchases spoke volumes about them. You could read people through the numbers on the till. Marnie stopped buying her fruit and nuts. Not long after, she began to put on weight – but she was a lot happier. William spent more money for his lunch and began to pay in notes. This told me he got a better job at the post office. Franco stopped buying his lottery tickets and went onto scratch cards, I suppose he worked out there’s a better chance of him winning with them. And Higgins stopped coming in, instead a boy took his place. He was silent on the shop floor picking up the milk, the paper – but not the chocolate. After I figured he was running the daily errands for Higgins, the boy told me the wife had given up the chocolate. For her health. He’d then ask politely for 60 Camel cigarettes. “He’ll kick the habit. He’ll kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow,” the boy would say. It wasn’t followed with a laugh.

I still visit the village. My parents live down there and when I’m around, I’ll get the bread for them in the mornings. I see the same people, although they don’t recognise me, what with my beard and hair and that. It’s a relief to see how people are. I saw Marnie outside the bank, she was thin and her hair was full, she looked really well. William was in a suit with a briefcase, walking with urgency towards the post office. He looked liked he owned the place when he entered. And ‘Franco’s Restaurant’ was now a cafe and was roaring with customers drinking coffee and eating cake. He looked happy, too, though I spotted a lottery ticket in his hand.

One time, I saw the boy. He was older. A man, I suppose now, he may well have been in his early twenties. I was walking past him and caught a glimpse of what he was carrying. He had a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a chocolate bar – no cigarettes, though.

Perhaps Higgins finally did it. He killed the smoking habit.

God, I wish it were that way around. I wish it were that way around.