Consciousness reclaiming him, Tom became aware of his body. The muscles in his arms were slabs of lead, softened by some unidentified heat. Hanging from his scalp like seaweed, even his hair was drunk. Slumped on his knees, moonbeams for company, he saw himself in the middle of a large hall. A hearkening within, “Lavender’s Blue…” an echo of his own voice? Had he been singing? Was this the reason two uniformed officers of the law were approaching him? “Dilly dilly lavender’s… silly bugger” – as he didn’t know the words to the nursery rhyme, just the sweet melody, bringing his eyes to tears. After all these years the proscenium stage was the same, as was the brown mottled tiling on the lower part of the walls and those high, high windowpanes… And there was the white bearded eminence, cricket bat Excalibur in hand, threatening to smash the boundaries of the gilt-edged frame… Oh, love a duck, it was the portrait of W.G. Grace, the legend himself, standing still in time, old W.G…
Tom was laughing or crying, or both, it all tasted the same.
Tom Withers was sat, just like the child he had once been, on his knees, in the assembly hall of Livingstone Road Primary School.
“Come on, mate” the taller of the two officers said, “the party’s over.”
“It’s Tom, isn’t it?”
This second voice was softer, less partisan than the other. From the symmetrical bumps under the tunic, Tom divined it was a young woman officer of the law. She was holding a torch upright in her left hand. Tom merrily followed its beam toward the ceiling, and asked the young woman if the caretaker had let them in. She started to laugh. So, he opened his arms before her…
“Were we disciples together, my lovely?”
Not that it made any difference. The moment when he slipped back to consciousness was a loneliness he could never explain.
It was 2am of a Sunday morning for anyone who cares to know.
Tom Withers was wrapped in a pink blanket. He was staring at his toes, the little ones reddening and fattened like Botticellian angels. His arse felt like rigor mortis was settling in. A tingling sensation in his fingers. His clothes were in a pile besides the dull metal thing they called a toilet. Beside him, on the dark wooden bench was a blue plastic mattress, humped up, unloved, thanks all the same. The four walls surrounding him were a cadaverous shade of grey. There was only one police station in this town: where he was then…
And must have been slipping in and out of consciousness. He had vague recollections from the previous night; the legendary cricketer William Gilbert Grace was part of the mosaic, as was the sloping rooftops and sharp red brick angles of Livingstone Road Primary School, set against the curve of a fathomless sky…. ‘We would rather be ruined than changed’… from a poem, he couldn’t… Suddenly the cell door opened. Tom smiled. What else was he going to do at the sight of his brother in-law? Dressed all mufti in a red check, light cotton shirt and bargain chinos, P.C. Chris Gibson looked every inch the surfer dude.
“Is that a spray-on tan?”
“Shut up, Tom, you’re not funny.”
“You never know your luck in a small town.”
Chris puffed his cheeks out with a weighty sigh and stared at the sad heap of clothes beside the toilet. He’d known Tom for getting on thirty years. They hadn’t always been friends; they were more than that. Chris’s wife Lisa had a sister, Rachel, who fell in love with Tom, had his child; they were love’s young dream. Separated now for how many years and still they managed to rant, rave and mess each other up, dragging everyone else into their dismal orbit.
“The state of you,” Chris paused, but not for effect, “Again”.
There was no answer, just a naked shrug under the coarse pink blanket. Chris couldn’t think of a reason not to continue, “I got a call from the desk sergeant.”
A dark swell was beginning to close Tom’s left eye, his top lip bloodied and plump. His hair was amazing, looked like it was reaching out for help in all directions. That was one of the things people said about Tom or remembered him by; his hair got pissed as well. Chris had never known anyone like Tom.
“What were you thinking?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Breaking into Livingstone Road School? A bloke saw you shinnying up the drainpipe… you could have been killed.”
“That’s my cat burgling days over.”
“And you weren’t exactly quiet about it, you were singing your head off.”
“I think….” Tom began, through a furrowed brow, picking at a memory that had snagged like a strip of cloth on barbed wire, “I think… I saw a window open…”
“Oh, really, a window was open?”
“…and a light left on.”
“Well, be sure to let the magistrate know that.”
“What happens now?”
Tom slouched forward holding the blanket tight over his shoulders, “Are you going to shoot the elephant, Chris, the one squatting over the bog?”
“I see it.”
“Or we’re tacitly avoiding the subject…”
“And, yeah, I was at the wedding.”
“Good, was it?”
“As weddings go.”
“What’s her surname now, I seem to have forgotten?”
“Use the toilets at the end of the corridor,” Chris said, turning soundlessly on the heel of his red Nike trainers.
“I know where they are.”
“Just testing….” Chris called from the corridor and was gone.
Tom circled his clothes like an out of shape boxer sizing up a fiercely tricky opponent. He hit the floor twice trying to get into his underpants. Satisfied he’d got them on the right way round, he put his back against the wall to struggle into his trousers. He was out of breath putting his socks on. And winced with pain whilst fastening the buttons of his shirt. His shoes were nowhere to be seen. (He couldn’t remember what they looked like). These were desperate times.
With daylight the only possible source of redemption, the shoeless wonder shuffled out of his cell feeling the weight of an old familiar pressure bearing down. He needed a drink for a start; a cold one to zap the urge, the desperation, this forlorn human impulse to bring shape and meaning to something he might just recognise as a memory. But there was nothing to cling to and rationalise, no relief. Just the terrifying lack of self that would haunt him for days to come… where have you been, Tom, what have you done, what have you done, Tom… What are you capable of?
The strip light hurt his eyes. The sound of a dripping tap hurt his mind more than his ears, as he followed the slow drip to the toilets at the far end of the basement’s corridor. Between the shuffling of his feet and the slow drip, the rest was silence; if there were any other detainees in the cells, well, they were keeping quiet about it.
He was glad there wasn’t a mirror above the sink. His face ached, that was all there was to it. Tom gobbled up the dull grey tap without thinking and slaked his thirst (although he did wonder why Chris hadn’t brought him a cup of tea). He dabbed his face with cold water and wet swept his hair back in handfuls. Some clever dick once said, to be is to be perceived.
With intentions as clear as the early morning sun he’d boarded a train at London’s Euston station. He’d simply wanted to spend a few hours in his little hometown. The pubs were open by the time he arrived, and he was soon bestowing his own kind of blessing on the union of Rachel and her I.T. specialist; drinking formally and ceremoniously, from bar to bar and back again. There’d been no intention to celebrate. He was almost certain that he hadn’t bumped into anyone he knew or used to know. Everything was fine until it wasn’t. Which would have been round about the time the drinking got delusional. Then, he was celebrating. Then he was bending the light to his will.
He remembered a dog barking at him, its long snout and thick paws stretching over a fence. There’d been some altercation outside an off-licence… and a punch in his face that may or may not have knocked him to the ground? What was she called… Missy Elliot? Dancing in the street for those whom he loved. It was pointless trying to patch it together. Another night had gone and left him to suffer its consequences.
Tom placed his hands onto the cold concrete above the metal urinal and relieved himself, rather splendidly, taking grim satisfaction in the long stream of piss that frothed at its edges and resembled the pale brown of a particularly delicate French onion soup.
“Are you ready down there?”
Chris sounded a bit too cheerful for Tom’s liking. Let him wait. He liked Chris. Admired and envied him. He felt safe with him; not that he would ever admit to anything so… bourgeois.
“Tom? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, big man”
Tom was racking his brain, wondering how he was going to shake Chris. He heard a dull thud behind him, outside the toilet.
“Try these on for size.” Chris was saying.
“Yeah…” Tom replied vacantly. The pubs wouldn’t be open till they opened. He’d get a can or two from… shake Chris off his tail. And why was Chris still a constable after all this time? Ten years or more plodding about in his helmet? The square jawed, blue eyed, blonde Everyman had found the platonic ideal or something?
“You okay, Tom?”
Chris was standing halfway up or halfway down the dingy staircase, legs apart, arms crossed over his manly chest, like a model of all things healthy, and capable. Tom was at the bottom of the stairs, failing to look refreshed. The trainers Chris had purloined from the station’s lost property looked like a pair of dead rats that had been eyeletted and laced. On to his aching feet they went; and his feet would continue to ache as the fetid things were a size too small.
“What’s happening?” Asked Tom.
“I’ve spoken to the headmistress at Livingstone Road.”
“Is it still the same one?”
“After thirty years? – Behave.”
“Terminator we called her, remember, missus Arnold?” Tom smiled.
“Anyway, under the circumstances – nothing damaged or taken, and you being a sad sack.”
“You’re welcome” Chris instantly replied, “She – Mrs Carter – feels it’s in no one’s interest to press charges.”
“I’m free to go?”
“Once you’ve paid the spot fine for the drunken dickhead malarkey.”
“Can do, will do.”
“You’re lucky. Had it gone to court this is the kind of story that makes it into the Evening Chronicle…. You… understand what I’m saying, Tom?”
Well, Tom Withers knew how to be impugned. At least Chris had spared him the can you see the headline bit. Not that an ex-pupil breaking into a primary school to cry his eyes out in front of a portrait of W.G. Grace would have made the front page. It would probably warrant a few column inches on page 5 though, sharing the space with adverts for orthopedic mattresses and camping holidays in Cornwall. So yes, Tom understood all that Chris had implied, as he had the last time and the time before that; yet all the implications in the world evaporated as soon as Tom had a drink in his hands. And all the admonishment this town had to offer, all its sympathies come to that, would never be enough to staunch the flow of his self loathing.
“Come on then, let’s get you signed out.” Chris said, already on his way back up the stairs.
Tom felt short of breath and his heart was pounding. The dingy staircase might as well have been the south face of Everest this morning. Chris was taking two steps at a time, but suddenly stopped and turned to face him.
“By the way, I’ll be putting you on the train back to London.”
“Who made you the sheriff of this town?”
“I’m your last line of defence, Tom.”
Had he decided to make a run for it, Tom felt certain that he wouldn’t have made it much further than the tree he’d just collided with; a slim, impossibly white paper birch that had managed to take all the strength and breath he had left right out of him.
“Tom? You alright?”
“It’s this tree… just appeared, out the past… never seen, I swear officer.”
“Very funny. I thought the walk might do you good.” Chris instinctively looked back at the police station and scanned the windows on the first floor, in case one of his colleagues was observing this little scene: it had taken idiot bollocks all of twenty seconds to walk into a tree. Thankfully, but for the sound of choiring birds and the whirr of a gentle breeze, all was quiet on the home front. “Come on mate,” Chris said, returning his attention back to Tom, “we don’t want to be late for the train.”
“We…? We don’t? You don’t wanna be late for the train.”
“Get up, Tom.”
“I can’t… I don’t want to!”
“Fascinated her that she could peel off the bark…”
“Tom, leave the tree alone.”
“….so easily in her little fingers.” Tom lifted a strip towards Chris.
“This isn’t the time” Chris folded his arms.
“‘It’s like paper, Daddy’, she’d say to me.”
Worked like the devil, Tom did.
“And it is, Chris…”
“…. just like paper, that she could draw and colour on, once we got home.”
Like the devil, using his daughter’s voice, to cast a spell.
Chris let the little devil carry on with his miserable mischief, taking strips of white bark from the tree. No one around. There was time for the train.
“All I got of her, and she of me, is -” Tom halted abruptly, “Are you listening to me?”
“I don’t know, Tom.”
“Absence.” Chris parroted.
“A deep and permeable absence in me, like a virus.” Tom wheezed, spittle flying from his lips and teeth, “So that everywhere I look it’s the same, Absence. Absence. I can see it in your eyes. Everywhere.”
Worked like the devil, if you let him, and many had, to make you see the world through his… illness.
“This Absence?” Chris began.
“This is my home-town, not just Rachel’s – an’ the twat she’s married….”
“Actually, he’s -” Chris held the thought. Because now wasn’t the time to tell Tom that Paul had been offered a life-changing career move to Canada; as for Rachel’s pregnancy, four months gone and beginning to show on her slender frame…
“Not just your home, Chris, or Lisa’s, you’ve never had the fucking guts to up and leave…”
“I’m warning you, Tom.”
“Gerbils in a cage, with knobs on.”
“Shut yer hole”
“I live in a hostel, man. A Hostel!”
Chris had heard about the hostel in some previous drunken rant. It was off the “famous” Old Kent Road. Tom was surrounded by Millwall football supporters and people out to do him grievous bodily harm. Which was no surprise, as it would never occur to him to modify his behavior.
“All this absence, absence growing…”
Chris had heard it all before. He had another glance back at the station while Tom’s indignation continued…
“Absence growing, absence in abundance, man. You any idea? What that is like for me?”
“Take it easy, Tom”
“In all this absence… Amy … my Amy… is becoming just… someone else I know. It’s terrifying, more than terrifying, because maybe I don’t care. You understand?”
Chris lowered his head. Tears were falling now. Hard to say where they were coming from, the booze, the cunning, the bottom of his sorry heart. It was getting difficult to tell what was genuine.
“Is she staying with you and Lisa?” Tom sniffed.
“Of course.” Chris replied, plaintively.
“I want to see her.”
Tom curled his body around the tree and emitted a long, low squeal. A car passed. It pained Chris to see his old friend like this, weeping and rolling in dried up dog shit.
“Why…why can’t I…? She’s my daughter!”
“Try and understand things from our point of view, Tom.”
Tom was thirty-eight years old, and this behaviour could never sit easy with Chris. If it had been anyone else Chris would have walked away a long time ago. But Tom kept turning up like a kamikaze clown. Most of Chris’s colleagues at the station thought Tom was a nuisance – those that didn’t have an opinion hadn’t met him yet – to others he was nothing but a joke, an old-school village idiot. If Tom didn’t deserve better, Amy did.
“I only want to see her.”
“Not like this” Chris lowered himself to his haunches and gently placed his hand on Tom’s shoulder, “Don’t let her see you like this. I don’t want her to see you like this.”
Everyone expected Tom would turn up over the wedding weekend, of all weekends, somewhere in the town. Chris was sick to the pits with the whole lot of them. No one in the family dared think what Tom might do should he hear that Rachel was pregnant: the consensus was that he might do something like, really stupid, and kill himself. It was Tom all over, holding the family’s conscience to ransom with his unpredictability. They weren’t even Tom’s blood relations! But seriously, Tom Withers kill himself, on purpose? And deprive the world of all that dazzling wit? There were times when Chris wondered if a good kicking was the only thing Tom deserved.
“I know, Chris…. I know.”
‘Good for you.” Chris was sick of it, sick of all the manipulation, from all sides. When he thought of Lisa and himself and the IVF treatment, the hope they carried and couldn’t let go. And the likes of Rachel and Paul and Tom taking it for granted…
“Get up now, Tom, I really haven’t time for this.”
“I know she’s pregnant to him.”
“Get up, I said.” Unlike Tom he’d never grappled with metaphysics. He didn’t have the sensibility for all the spiritual, middle class snarky bullshit. Day to day existence, paying bills, adapting to demands and constraints in a material world you can touch, taste and smell, that was life; stopping kids from pulling up floral displays; keeping an eye out for shoplifting teenagers. Holding Lisa, holding all that failure and bitterness… that was life, that. Grappling with a low sperm count.
“I know… I know”, Tom mumbled.
“What is it you know?” Chris shouted the first of his kicks into Tom’s left foot. A second kick to the left thigh followed and felt… good. His third kick hit hard against Tom’s rib cage. So did the fourth. All Chris wanted was his old mate back.
“Get up!” Chris bellowed, now wholly unconcerned as to who might be witnessing this Sunday morning farce.
“Not shh…capable….” Tom wheezed
“I’m not gonna carry you.”
“You might have to….”
“But I will drag you.”
The two friends were out of breath; Tom prostrate at the dusty bole of the paper birch, P.C Chris Gibson resting on all fours, staring straight ahead.
“Amy’s going to have a half sibling.” Tom said, regaining his breath.
“If you’ve broken one of my ribs, Gibson, I’ll sue.”
Chris guessed that Amy had told him. And what did this stupid family expect? Amy was over the moon that she was going to have a little brother or sister. Why wouldn’t she tell her dad? She had her own phone.
“I know why you showed up this weekend, Tom”, Chris said, taking a moment to stare at the sad, bruised face, “You’re an open book, mate.”
“Part of you is. And that’s the part that needs to die.”
“And what’s that?”
“The young man with poetry in his soul. Your Liam Gallagher – “
“Hate the louse!”
“- meets Bobby Sands bullshit. You come here, you’re chasing shadows, mate, Shadows, getting dimmer, only you’re too wrapped up.” Chris paused for breath, just as a small white butterfly hove into view. He watched it pirouette above Tom’s head then flutter away on the breeze. “And this absence you feel? That’s a lack of responsibility, mate, coming home to roost.”
“You want to drop this brotherly concern act?” Came a sober riposte. “I hear a train a-coming.”
Suddenly Chris was laughing, laughing so hard he struggled to his feet.
“What’s so fuckin’ funny?” Tom demanded.
Chris was remembering that as kids the pair of them had spent the better part of one summer searching for missing dogs and cats; even going as far as to contact the owners, knocking on doors, to let them know that everything would be done to find and return their beloved pooches. How the pair of them got away with it? And not one pet found. They should have been arrested and charged with harassment, the misery they must have caused!
“Tom, do you remember?”
“No. I don’t.”
Chris set off like Usain Bolt, parting the air towards the cop shop. Tom couldn’t have cared less, the tears on his lips tasted like cider (or the nature of things). He tore another strip of bark from the paper birch and placed it into the pocket of his tatty jacket. He coughed, spat out a dollop of phlegm. He put his back against the tree. Wishing he had a cigarette, Tom lifted his face to the sun and closed his eyes. We would rather be ruined than changed… W.H. Auden, he remembered the poem now.
The car brushing up comfortably against the curb was unfamiliar. Tom recognized the driver, though….
“You can afford a new motor on your wages?”
“Shut up, Tom, you’re not funny.”
“You’re the one wearing wrap-around shades, bruv.”
“Get in before I change my mind, will ya.’”
“Where’re we going, anywhere nice?”
David's stories have appeared in Duality books, Friday Flash Fiction and performed on Resonance FM radio (UK). He was commissioned to adapt and direct his short story 'Into The Breach' for the 2021 Rise of the Resistance Festival, screened at Bloomsbury Theatre London. For several years he has worked in the public sector, mostly with homeless charities, in hostels and supported housing units. David was a founder member of punk band Vee V V. He finds his stories while he's out and about, or they find him... He lives with his wife and family in London.