There were sirens and flashing lights and men and women in heat-retardant gear standing and walking and half-running up and down the street. All the town’s fire engines must have been there. Every neighbour huddled and watched the firefighters at work. It was like a movie. So many things were happening at once to really know what was going on.
Arcs of water patterned the sky and the house was a vague shape, barely visible amongst a cloud of smoke. Tom stood like the rest of them, wondering whether this was the most inconvenient thing to ever happen to him.
“Tom,” Mike from No32 rested his hand on Tom’s shoulder before genuinely asking, “why is there a plane on your house?” Something exploded in the grey murk where Tom’s kitchen used to be.
Tom wanted to respond, he wanted to say something witty and shoot Mike down, but he couldn’t think of a single word. In truth, he had no idea why a fucking plane landed onto his home. Furthermore, what he was going to do about it. He shot Mike a look which didn’t really have any emotion linked to it. Mike from No32 grimaced as if he only then realised how much of dick he must have sounded. He muttered something to himself before turning back toward the flames.
There were children from neighbouring houses crying because they didn’t know what else to do. Tom didn’t know if he could even do that. A firefighter approached him. He was a mountain of a man whose face was dominated by a grey moustache.
“Looks like you lucked out,” the moustache said, “no-one inside. No fatalities. You’re fortunate that it was a small aircraft too.” The moustache curled into a grin as a hand slapped Tom on the back. Tom, still, was without words. How fortunate. His eyes stared at the pink-gold pulse and the black rising into the air and the broken wing of aeroplane jutting out like a makeshift balcony to his guestroom. Tom wondered if fire had the power to turn everyone around it into an insensitive tosser.
“And the pilot?” Tom found a question somewhere in his head.
“The pilot is about 8 miles west of here. Managed to ditch out before things got too hairy.” Some of the roof on the right side of the house collapsed out of sight. The house roared as if it was in pain. The firefighter turned away and barked orders at couple of young men using a waterhose.
An arm appeared, outstretched into the sky. Sandra, from No26, always managed to catch his eye in a crowd, even though she was 5foot nothing. Her hair was scrunched into a dirty blonde fist which spilt down into a messy fringe on top of a face which was mixture of relief and shock. She navigated her way through the horde of onlookers with a few swift jabs, pissed-off elbows and fierce looks. Sandra sarcastically thanked every person she coerced into moving before finally breaking through. She turned back to the collective of limbs and heads; and Tom just about made out what she said under her breath: “but when I throw a Christmas party none of you fuckers turn up”.
Sandra turned and strangely looked surprised to see Tom. “Oh, thank god. You’re alive. The Harrisons across the road told me were, you know, dead.” She didn’t know why she told him this. Surely, there were so many other things she could have said. Sandra tried to redeem herself, “but you’re not dead. Which is great.” Jackpot.
“Yeah, ain’t that something.” He appreciated that Sandra was trying to be nice, but he knew that there was no special combination of words which could de-plane his home.
Tom was, for today, a passenger. He went from person to person in his street sharing the same disbelief. He wanted to believe that they were ‘just as shocked’ as he was, but in truth they all still had somewhere to go home to. Thankfully, Sandra offered a place on her living room sofa for the night while Tom waited for his new rattan furniture to finish smoldering.
Maybe this needed to happen, Tom thought to himself. He was spending way too much money on shit he didn’t need. After hours of frenzied thought about all the calls he needed to make the next day, sleep dragged Tom away. That night the moon’s glow was undermined by the flames which ate away at Tom’s furniture. And there he laid, spread all wide and thin, under Sandra’s hanging potted plants, under the billowing smoke which left the stars unseen in the nightsky.
Some of Tom’s possessions arrived the next morning. They were all burnt-bordered, broken and clumsily stuffed into a single cardboard box which a young woman held under one arm. Sandra called for Tom from the front door. She was barely visible against the intense morning light.
“Someone’s here to see you” Sandra smiled and left them to it before disappearing into the kitchen. Tom heard the kettle flick on and water begin to boil.
“Are you Mr Jesper?” The woman asked shyly. She seemed to be very conscious of how she wanted to present herself. She was the bearer of bad news and felt sorry for this homeless stranger. She forced a smile in an attempt to dispell the awkwardness from the situation.
“Sometimes.” Tom needed to be nicer to people. “I mean, yeah. That’s me.” He tried to smile, but he knew it looked weird, so he ended up looking away.
“Here’s a few things we managed to save from the fire.” the firefighter said. Her arms pushed out straight and present the box of ash-black articles.
“This is it?” Be nice, Tom. The box rattled as has pulled it into his chest. He hovered his face over the contents, performing a quick stocktake.
The firefighter blushed, went to apologise before instead saying: “We’re all so lucky that no-one was hurt or killed.” She then declined a cup of tea from Sandra and left.
Sandra asked what Tom was going to do today and whether he needed help with anything. Tom should have been more appreciative, Sandra was the only person around him who seemed to have an inch of empathy for him. He could have been polite and thanked her, but instead he fiddled with the contents of the cardboard box. Old burnt books he had half-read, a lamp he haggled hard for in Marrakech and some heat-warped vinyls. We are all so lucky, Tom thought.
And then… hold the phone. What do we have here? Tom found something unfamiliar hiding amongst his reclaimed bits of crap. Sandra watched as Tom’s face changes and he stopped blindly rumaging. His brow dropped into a fold, eyes flicked to off to the side and he bit his bottom lip.
A ring. More specifically, a silver wedding band. It was quite large and thick with an elegant pattern engraved into it; seemingly celtic in origin.
“I didn’t know you were married, Tom.” Sandra handed over a cup of tea the shade of tan leather. Tom had to hand it to Sandra, she could make a hell of a brew.
“Me neither.” Tom replied, lost in the twists and turns of silver pinched between his finger and thumb.
Tom had been an expert in the art of remaining hopelessly single for the past four years, so he was in no doubt that this ring did not belong. This had to belong to the pilot. Maybe the firefighter would recognise it? Perhaps ring belonged to whoever sorted through the rubble of his home.
“Can you hold this for a moment?” Tom dumped the box of belongings into Sandra’s arms before she could respond. The door opened, the sunlight flashed and then Tom was gone.
Tom was a flapping mess of awkward shapes as he pursued the firefighter down the street. Luckily, she had stopped to talk to Mike from no32 on her way back to her car. Mike falsed a smile as Tom bursting into the conversation panting.
“Tom!” Mike performed pleasantries which were so rehearsed and sweet he could spread diabetes, “I was just asking our friend, Lisa, here what the update is on the fire.” Lisa turned and gave Tom a sad smile to say: Sorry that you have a plane in your house.
“I think the fire’s fine. It’s just my house which is the issue, Mike.” Tom saw Mike’s teeth clench into a weird smile, as if he didn’t know what to do with his mouth. “Lisa,” Tom’s attention moved to the most useful person around him, “can I talk to you about something? It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” Lisa’s smile pushed her cheeks into a plumpness which made her eyes smile too, “how can I help.” Lisa turned from Mike, who got the hint and disappeared back into his house.
“I found this in the box you gave me.” Tom pulled the wedding ring out of his pocket and held it up to the light. “Does this belong to anyone you work with?” Lisa’s face scrunched for a moment.
“Nope,” Lisa said with more certainty than Tom had expected, “maybe it’s the pilot’s ring. Are you trying to return it?”
Tom’s face relaxed into smile. Those who made him happiest were people who could skip all the fluff of a conversation and just ask the right questions.
“The pilot’s details must be somewhere on file,” Lisa seemed a little less guarded now she could be more useful to Tom. The awkward sympathy faded from her face and gave way to a decisive and thoughtful expression. “I’ll check and see what we have back at the office. Then I’ll stop around Sandra’s house later in the day.”
Tom was happy with this. He was happy with Lisa. She was competent and, at least, trying to be helpful. Unlike Mike. Seriously Mike, you can go do one. Hard.
It was around 5pm when Lisa showed up at Sandra’s with a print out of names and numbers. Tom was out in Sandra’s garden, sitting on a deck chair with his phone stuck to his ear. From the kitchen, Lisa could see Tom frantically debating with someone on the other end of the call as he held the ring up to the sun and inspected its shine.
“He’s been out there for hours, poor sod.” Sandra had greeted Lisa with a wonderful smile and led her through to take a seat at a long oak table. The kitchen was wild with exotic house plants; they bordered the windows and sprouted upward from a variety of pots on the table. Sandra continued to talk as she disappeared and reappeared from view, moving behind the greenery and searching through cupboards. “Change isn’t usually something that happens without hardship,” Sandra prepared a jug of water, poured out two glasses and took a measured sip, “however, change is a necessary part of life. It moves us and creates opportunity. And opportunity… Well, opportunity is everything we need to go on.”
Lisa let Sandra’s words settle before excusing herself from the table and joining Tom out in the garden. Sandra watched on as Tom smiled and thanked Lisa for the information she had delivered. The two of them shook hands before Lisa returned to finish her water and left the house. Tom followed a few minutes later and took a seat. His hands clasping a sheet of paper containing half-answers.
“What are you thinking?” Sandra asked, pushing the water jug close to Tom’s hand.
Tom lowered the paper and smiled: “There’s someone out there who is missing something pretty important to them. And I’m not going to keep it from them. I’m going to find them and return it.” Tom had no ties to this town now; no reason to stay. This was a reason to leave and to move away from the stagnent life he had built around him, which kept him safe from opportunities to try something new and different and exciting.
Sandra moved around the table and peered over Tom’s shoulder to see what he was seeing. “I suppose you’ll be gone a while then.” Sandra’s hand gave Tom’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze to let him know she agreed he should go. “I hear Mumbai is wonderful this time of year.”
Cut the pain away. Cut the fucking pain away. The scissor blades are cold. Icey edges. My foot slips slightly on the toilet seat as I shift my shoulders for a better view of myself. All of me. As I move, the scissors sting me. I wince.
The mirror reveals my shameful shapes. My awkward, ugly pose. Filthy, dirty angles. Neck twisted, arm reversed and tucked under my right leg which is lifted up and propping itself on the toilet. My stuff hanging scared and insignificant. Scissors pinched. Cold and sharp. Fucking sharp.
The scissors sting again. I have never seen myself from this angle before. The muscles in my back move differently to how it feels from the front. I look like someone else. I feel like someone else. Please be someone else. Anyone else. The scissors, they burn me. Cut the pain away. Mutate me.
Wiping my arse has been an event over the past few weeks. This huge fucking haemorrhoid. It moved in, occupied me and decided to continue bursting and healing. Burst and heal. Fucking burst and never heal. Only scabs. Well, this is it. The showdown.
I’m stood strange in my bathroom. Leg up and pile pinched between steel. Skin shining hot-wet. A singular bead of sweat slides fast down my spine before slipping into my arse crack.
I’m mouth-breathing now. A minute goes by and I do absolutely nothing. Then, I press hard down onto the scissors and squeeze them together. I feel the pinch. I feel the burn, the sting, the tear. The release. My butthole puckers like a kiss. Then it spits blood. The pile hits the floor all bloody and purple. And then everything is wet with red.
Scissors meet floor. Floor meet blood, scissors and I’m sure you’ve all met pile. I shuffle and rip streams of toilet paper from the wall before stuffing it between my ass cheeks. The tissue turns red and dark. I wash myself down, hike up my underwear and jeans before taking a final look in the mirror.
The mirror reveals my shameful shapes. My awkward, ugly pose. Filthy, dirty angles. Trimmed and unwhole. And yet the pain remains. Somewhere in me. Deep. I pick up the scissors once again and survey myself. The steel traces my skin as I stand weird and unnecessary. Cut the pain away. Mutate me. Please.
The train seats are eighties brown etched with egg-yolk yellow. It’s rude to rest your feet on them, but the carriage is empty so you do it anyway. Only one earphone works, the sun is burning your left side and, christ, there’s nowhere to throw your empty drink can.
A blur of trees. Trainlines always seem to look into the worst gardens the country has to offer. Plastic slides bask pale in the summer heat whilst branches sway like arms in a crowd. We move, with purpose, until the greenery dirties with concrete greys.
The carriage fills, someone gives you a look and you move your legs. How rude. This is society and we all need to work together to keep everything from changing. Embrace the stasis. Embrace the eticate and expectation please, then we’ll get all get along just fine. The same person gets off the train at the next stop. A waste of a seat. Your legs return to rest upon the seat. How wonderful is it to rebel in the littlest of ways. I see you smiling.
Conversations are happening around you. All you need to do is stop thinking and listen. Suddenly, you are a part of someone’s dialogue: “Sharon never listens. She keeps going back to him.” Poor Sharon, people are talking about you and do not think you listen to them. Sharon, they are assuming that you disobeying them is you not listening. You strangely begin to defend Sharon, the absent party. Your thoughts move to a position of empathy. Sharon does understand and listen, but she still has a choice, regardless of what those around her think.
“Her choices are illogical.” The other person in the conversation says. How unfair. Choices are rarely ever illogical. There is always a logic to a decision. This, however, does not mean that every decision is a good decision. Sharon may be coerced into staying with whoever it is they are referring to. She may just love him more than he hurts or disappoints or annoys her. Or children. There could be a multitude of complex systems influencing Sharon and her decisions. Sharon weighs up her finances, hears what everyone has to say about her life, imagines her future, considers what change would look like then she decides on who she wants to be and who she wants to be with. Then she decides. It turns out Sharon decided to be with him and be that person that people talk about. She decided to be everyone else’s business when deciding her own. Don’t listen to them, Sharon, even though you probably did.
Life, is it over yet? 20 minutes into coffee and she looking at me like she’s wants to fuck or fight. I can’t tell which. I haven’t been able to in a while. And this might be why she hates me. One of many reasons, I suppose.
My book is closed and laid out in front of me on the table. I glance down at it every few minutes to check it’s still there. I would have hoped to had finished it during this lunch break if she hadn’t spotted me. Four hundred and twenty three pages down and I’m itching to read more. I hate finishing on an odd page number. I sat in the corner with my large latte trying to avoid the company of another person.
So here she is. Her hair scrunched up into a dirty blonde fist, mouth pinched and eyes cold grey. Should I just leave? I mean that’s what I usually do, right? Withdraw in cowardice.
“I don’t hate you, James.” Oh, well that’s a relief.
“You don’t?” I look down. The book is still there. Thank god.
“No, but I still don’t think we should be together.” She gives me a half-smile. She’s relieved to no longer be a part of my life anymore. “I mean, you don’t seem to know what I want anymore.”
I nod in agreement. It disguises another glance at my book.
“Or listen.” Her words were familiar. As though I have heard them before.
I twist my mouth and nod in a way that makes it look like I’m listening.
“You never gave me the time.” She looks exhausted with me. Am I really this draining? I’m not perfect, but I’m no 9-5 shift either.
“It’s 1.23pm.” I say.
“That’s not what I meant.” Another sigh. I mean, of course I’m not making this easy, but Christ, just get it over with. This is clearly hard work for you. “So what do you think?”
“I suppose it’s probably for the best.” Break ups make me talk in cliches. “Maybe you deserve someone better than me.”
“Maybe.” She stands up, straightens her skirt and leaves. Actually, just before leaving she did ask if my book was worth the read as she was looking something “new to get her teeth into”. I lied and said no.
And she is gone. I sit alone shaking my head to myself. Coffee must be ice-cold by now. Waste of money. A waitress appears at the table and I order another. 25 minutes of my lunch break left. The book opens and suddenly I’m over it. Completely over it. It was only a £2.50 latte. Over it.
Hospital food is so cheap. Well, it seems it to me. I suppose it has to be when it’s cheaper to park on Mars than within a mile of the A&E. The food tastes good too. Great, even. Tastes like it could soften the pain. Or at least take your mind off of it for a while.
A ginger sponge pudding with custard. Yum. I never usually like ginger, but on this occassion, this very minute, it tastes like the best thing I’ve had in a long time. Such a long time. I don’t even mind that no-one will sit across from me to hear me complimenting the menu. They have their own things to worry about. Like me.
The vegetable chilli is nice too. Very nice indeed. I’m not a vegetarian, but I thought I’d try something different. Something healthy. I suppose I have to start at some point. People keep telling me I need to change, that it will benefit me in the long run, it will help lift my mood and enable me to live longer. And I’m told that this is important. A healthy life. A long life.
The lady comes around and picks up the trays. She asks to take mine. I decline. I’m finished but I’d rather put it away myself. I like doing things for myself. It helps me feel in control. It’s all you have really – control over your actions. Nothing else.
My appointment finished 5 hours ago, yet I can’t bring myself to leave. I’m trying to work out why. But it’s difficult. Maybe it’s the delious food, which is affordable too – such a delight. Maybe I don’t want to bring the news home. Maybe, whilst they don’t know, my family will assume that all is well.
The salt sachets never really hold enough salt. Well, that’s just my opinion, I’m sure I just eat more salt than others so I suppose it might be enough for the average person. I used to add salt to my vegetables because my mother had a talent for boiling the taste out of them. She did her best though. A better cook than me. Definitely. I would start cooking more if I had more time. But life is busy. Life is complicated now. So, no new hobbies for me. Yes.
I get up and walk to the exit of the canteen and, just as I’m about to leave, I realise I still have today’s newspaper in my bag. What a lovely surprise. Unread too. I return to my seat, open it up and dig into the articles. Cuts, cuts, cuts. And they wonder why we’re all dying in the waiting rooms? The cap doesn’t help either; it’s just pushing the poverty line higher. Too high. Kids are going hungry because the money’s gone after the rent is paid. So mummies and daddies everywhere are now being accused of neglect. That ain’t right. Neglect doesn’t means poverty. I guess they’ll have to hire more social workers to blame. It’s all broken. Like being shit on from a great height. You can’t see who did it, but you know it was by someone with the power to decide not to fuck up your day. Shame on them all. Such a shame.
The news makes me angry. It makes me sad. But I can’t stop reading. It’s killing me. With each word I feel this itch within me become more numb. It feels like it is sinking. Being buried. Dead. Every word. My brain loves it: reading. Learning about things that are separate from this day. This day in this hospital. This day that is the end of everything. Where I can’t stop reading. Burying that itch. The news is very interesting today. I better call the family and let them know this could take all night.
If I could have it back, all of it back. Eyes, face, the smile, the memory of fights after wine and kisses after more wine, the gifts of happiness and pain within two seconds of eachother, the times I pressed her buttons and she would say fuck off, Matt; you’re a dickhead, Matt. If I could have it all back. The silence to questions I already know the answers to, the answers to questions she never asked, the roll of her eyes, the smile once again, the snide comments about her parents, the playful slap on the arm each time I said something inappropriate, the way my eyes could only see her when others were in the room, the days I didn’t want to see her, the days she hated me, the moments of comfortable no speak, the days we wasted. If I could have it back. All those days we wasted, living dead in bed with the tv roaring, the eyes forward and our heads sore from the night before. All those days we wasted. And if I could have them back, I’d only waste them again. If I could have them all back, I’d only waste them with you.
“I don’t know,” she looks away, “home isn’t where it used to be.” My fingertips move to her arm. She shrugs me off. Again. And, in a moment, I become a spectator in my own life. I see her and I see me. We are characters on an invisible screen. We are paused, playing statues. The space between us is more evident than ever. Say something, I plead to myself.
“Please, you need to stay.” My hands interlock behind my head and elbows make sharp shapes. She used to move with my words, but now the air remains still. Vacant. Then she turns to face me. A half smile which fades as soon as it arrives. No words leave her mouth. She says nothing and everything.
Moments like this define love. If two people love eachother and are meant to be together one of them will fight. In this moment, one of them will say something. Anything.
Years passed as we stared at eachother, but neither of us had enough of anything left in our hearts to break up this break up.
She was gone and then she left. All that remained was a shape of a man I used to know, casting shadows against the walls of a small empty room.
She smiles as if it was her last. The needle falls, yet still sticks out from her arm. She goes limp. I take her syringe and refill it. I inject the fire into my veins. Eyes roll back. Heart attack.
Sex rushes over us like a warm tide. Skin is electric. The floor is softer than ever. Spongey, pillowy wooden floorboards. She dissolves. I dissolve. We dissolve. A blend of hot and cold. Smiles on the walls and the door looks itchy. Smokey smells loom above me.
A skyline rises and falls against a blushing sunset horizon. Towers fall and the smoke plumes into a cluster of words. The smokey words shift into a sentence made for her lips and her lips only. The smoke, she whispers to me: ‘Die young and save yourself, before you become someone else.’
You hate yourself. That’s what you tell yourself. Stop living too close to yourself, you’ll realise you don’t like what you are. There are people out there who can distract you from you.
The cafe is half-full and it is because there is a toddler screaming in the corner. Her mother is quiet and calmly tells her daughter to behave herself. The screaming gets louder. Piercing. It sounds like breaking bones. Two old ladies leave and shoot the mother a stare which says: ‘you need to deal with this’.
The coffee cup is empty before you know it, so you order another. The waitress disappears. The screams become more amplified. Half words and blubbering. The child doesn’t know what she wants, noone does, she just knows she is missing something. We are all just calling out into a vacuum. The mother picks her child up and embraces her. The child is soothed and calms down.
The cafe refills like it would after a fire drill. People are happy. Well, they look happy anyway.
Another coffee comes. There’s no sugar on your table. You look up to ask for more, but the waitress is already gone.
“So what did you need to talk to me about?” A female form sits opposite. Hands clapped in prayer. Fingers interlocked into a clump of knuckles. The sleeves of her jumper pushed up into folds at her elbows as they rest on the table. She was here the whole time. You were too busy thinking about yourself again. You make her see-through when you act like this.
“Sorry, I couldn’t concentrate with that kid crying.” Preamble. Just another sentence that means nothing. You need to get to the point. You need to deal with this. Stop procrastinating. Her eyebrows raise in a way to ask you to answer her fucking question.
“Frank, if you’ve brought me here to break up with me you could’ve picked somewhere a bit nicer.” A song is playing under the noise of other people’s conversations. You like the song, but today it sounds dreadful. Too much talk. Jumbled words are spoiling something you used to think of fondly.
“There’s my point.” Did you mean to say that or think it? Well, regardless it catches you off guard and with no follow up sentence you’re going to be hit with more fire.
“What’s your point?” Her face screws into a different person.
“You expect too much. Even now.” Concise. You’re getting better at this. Still pretty vague though, Frankie boy.
“Is that so bad? Too expect the person you love to make you happy” And there we go. She’s said it for you. We aren’t happy. Repeat her words back to her so she realises that she said it first. It’s a coward’s way out, but god damn it’s effective.
“I’m not making you happy? I thought so.” Your eyes move to the floor. You look dejected, you think. The song still plays in the background. It’s still dreadful. Fingers fiddle with your cup. Coffee untouched.
“I don’t know why I even bother. You don’t want this,” Her eyes start to shine the way they always do before she cries, “you never have wanted this as much as I have.” She’s right. She is the one who always makes the effort. She is the one who always goes out of her way. And what do you do? You order yourself a cup of coffee and don’t ask if she would like another. You listen to the conversations of other people and remove yourself from your own. Even now, you’re not listening, Frank. She’s still speaking, you know. I guess you’ve been gone for a while.
“You’re right. This has been over for me for some time.” She jolts into a standing position and makes a scrabble for her phone and purse. Hair everywhere. You are certain that the exaggerated movement of limbs is her way of distracting you from the thin shine of water welling in both of her eyes.
“Well, that’s all I needed to hear.” You’re certain that is what she says.
Cycles. This keeps happening. You keep turning off. Where is your staying power? This is de ja vu. This is a reoccurring dream. This is a cafe you keep revisiting. Why do you even come here? You hate the way they make their coffee. It’s too strong for you. You enter here together and leave alone. Self-destruction isn’t the word, but it is the first word that comes to mind.
“A refill?” The waitress returns like she has always done before.
“Yes please,” the words echo. They have been said a thousand times before. “Oh, and some sugar please.” The waitress has already gone. That same dreadful song plays.