Friday, 27 May 2011

Umbra


Craig liked to watch children.

No. Not like that. He liked to watch them because they reminded him that there was still a future. Even though that future would not be worth living in he believed, contrary to all available evidence, that there was still hope. The youngest ones made him smile because they did not know nor did they care what the world had in store for them. The oldest ones made him smile because they did know and they did care but they tried not to let anyone see it. But he did. He saw that life had already started to gnaw at them. He saw it and wished he did not. There were some things that no man was ever meant to see and he had seen most of them. It gave him a perspective that everyone else lacked, but the problem with perspective was that no one else could share it unless they stood in exactly in the same spot. That was a fate he would not wish on anyone. No one deserved that. No one.
            Summer sun shimmered off of the paving stones in the market square. Amongst the milling crowds of shoppers and wanderers he caught sight of the lonely. Men like him. Men with no purpose or place. Men who had done all they could, given all they had and had been given nothing in return. Nothing except looks of scorn, disgust...fear. It was not their place to question their fate, simply to await it. Their lives dragged behind them like the tattered hems of trendy trousers or shadows of torn skin. For a moment Craig was almost convinced he could hear the sounds of their anguish: sobs like rattled chains, broken words whispered in the night or names of friends long lost that had turned their hearts into monuments. Headline sheets outside a news agents declared with typically monochromatic outrage that another atrocity had been committed in the city. That word had been used so many times that it had lost all its meaning. What did the Fleet Street preachers know about atrocities? The worst they had to deal with was their local Starbucks running out of hazelnut syrup, and even then they could always choose vanilla. Perish the thought. Perish all their thoughts. They did not know what it was like to watch ordinary men and women die. Worse, they did not know what it was like to watch ordinary men and women live.
            A group of youths sat outside a supermarket. They were singing the only song by Phantom Planet than anyone could remember. Their cider-garbled words were lost in the stuttering of automatic doors as Craig side-stepped to allow an old woman on a mobility scooter by. A heat lamp had been left on above the entrance. None of the staff seemed to care about turning it off. By the looks of them and the half-stocked shelves they did not care much about anything. Why would they? Two men wearing the tell-tale, high street label suits of middle management were huddled around a clearance sale sign. Their eyes shifted anxiously from their clipboards to the dwindling stock on the shelves and then to the faces of the staff they did not have the guts to tell were all on the verge of redundancy. That was the great fear that stalked down the aisles of every shop on every high street in the country. No one liked to be told they were not needed, that they were surplus to requirements or that they just did not belong anywhere anymore. Of course the management staff did not share that same mortal dread, their jobs were safe. It was far easier for a company to reassign one or two “essential” workers than it was to force their entire labour force to relocate...or to keep their place of work open for business in the first place. Money was surprisingly difficult to make, and no one in a head office was going to shed any tears for those who fell off the edges of the profit margin.
            The frozen food section was almost completely empty, but a few of the chillers had been left on. Frost encrusted boxes nestled in the bottom of chest freezers and bottles skulked at the back of free-standing coolers. A split box of fish fingers reminded him of a burned out car in a snow drift after an IED attack. Once he and his team had retrieved what was left of the bodies one of the other men turned to him and remarked about how a soldier who had just become little more than a smear on the ground had said how glad he was his mother had sent him hot water bottles to wear inside his uniform. At first Craig wondered what difference that could possibly have made, but then he supposed it was better to die warm. He passed along the front of the shop towards the cigarette kiosk. Stood at the checkout was a girl who looked like she had been scraped together from a pile of melted Barbie dolls. She called out her boyfriend’s name as though she were revealing irrefutable proof of the existence of aliens. A lanky man in a tracksuit with lines shaved into his eyebrows came running up with a bag of potatoes. They paid and left in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes. Clearly they did not have much, but at least they had each other. Perhaps that was enough. It was more than Craig had at least. He made his selection and paid the elderly lady behind the counter, but not before taking the least tired-looking bunch of flowers he could find from one of the buckets at the end of the produce section and buying them for the woman who had served him.
            ‘What are these for?’ She somehow managed to say after dismissing all the corporate approved responses that had been programmed into her.
            Craig looked around him as though the answer were obvious. ‘You’re stuck in here. You deserve them.’
            She gave him a timid and uncertain smile. ‘OK...well, thank you.’ Freak, she allowed to silently flutter at the corner of her mouth.
            ‘You’re welcome.’ Craig said as he took his receipt, checked his change and left. Somewhere out there people were dying of thirst so that Britain could have roses all year round; someone might as well actually get to enjoy them he thought. And he thought. And he thought. In a wash of bleakly bright sunshine he wished and hoped and even prayed that he could stop and that one day, just for once, he would be able to see the world around him and not think anything of it. To not catch his reflection in shop windows and see his hair and skin go grey and his eyes grow dim, knowing that there was nothing he could have done differently. Not for want of trying but for lack of opportunity. Some men were destined to achieve greatness, some were given it by virtue of their birth and others were meant to have greatness kept from them at all costs. Whether by acts of the heart or mind, some men found that they had no place or purpose that the world would let them fulfil and all the possibilities of life unravelled like threads of a burning tapestry before their very eyes. Social mobility was something known only to those in the upper echelons of society, their kind coasted through life in a rarefied atmosphere of their own making like birds of prey searching for choice morsels...or scum floating on the surface of a stagnant pond. For everyone else not only was the ceiling glass, but even their own flesh acted as a barrier beyond which they could not reach as though their undesirable postcodes had been written into their D.N.A. like a curse that would never be lifted.
            Craig had seen that curse destroy so many lives, or more accurately stop those lives from truly being lived in the first place. He had seen it on the television, in the newspapers and over the shoulders of people on public transport watching streaming videos on their smart phones of young men being arrested simply for saying the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was that curse which had cause Sean to quit work at the abattoir. He had wanted to be free. He wanted everyone to be free. He had seen a city in the clouds where one day it would be possible to wake up and not hate yourself simply for not having enough money in the bank. For that he had been unable to find work and when he was not at the job centre struggling to stay on benefits he could be found begging outside the veteran’s club...until the government decided to close it down. That was the price of such a vision, of refusing to let the world force you into believing that it did not matter how many fingers were being held up. Of course, smashing his manager’s nose in had not exactly helped matters but when needs must. Did he approve of what Sean had done? Not exactly: but he could understand it and understanding was what was required most, especially these days. But since Sean was not exactly a top-of-the-line model as far as management-types were concerned he did not warrant any leniency. Maybe if his parents lived in one of the most expensive houses in town he could have kept his job regardless of his personal circumstances. Maybe if he had an accent drizzled in sugar-plum sauce his outburst would not have mattered. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It was the doubter’s refrain and it echoed through every second of every day that Craig spent drifting along the unkempt pavements of his “home” town.
He shuffled to an uncertain stop on the noduled slabs at the edge of a road. The red light above the crossing glared at him. If he squinted it almost looked like the giant ‘O’ in the roof sign of a nearby supermarket as it scoured his heart and mind. Through the thuggish chugging of the waiting vehicles he caught sight of another group of men idling on a street corner outside an “Italian” ristorante. The genteel diners attempting to enjoy their oh-so-authentic and oh-so-overpriced al fresco experience threw them disapproving glances like scraps of food to mangy curs. The loathing they felt for their less fortunate fellow men was palpable as a thunderous shadow drifting across the brow of an old god witnessing the desecration of his temple. It was as though hanging around, talking and waiting for a text from a weed dealer were crimes against humanity. It did not seem to bother them that men and women just like those loitering citizens were constantly sent abroad in search of monsters to destroy in their name. It was fine for them to die fighting wars they did not start and did not believe in, but the sour looks on their faces made it clear they believed that was all they were fit for. One of them got a text and the group thinned. The shadow passed. The lights changed. The cars moved on.
So did Craig. The further away he got from there the better. But he could never have been far enough away from them. Since coming back from the wars he noticed that they were everywhere. They were the kind of people who read books that told them how to look, think, feel and act so that they could live in all the right ways but, unbeknownst to them either through ignorance or delusion, for all the wrong reasons. The kind who when put into a military uniform would have found a way to rationalise anything as long as they stood to gain from it, not willing to admit until it was already too late that there was death in their hands during every deal they struck. The kind who liked to think they worked in collaboration pods in desirable office spaces when they were actually sat at two desks back-to-back in a cramped room above a corner shop. They sat and sipped their improbably named coffees and fancy wines, not so that they could enjoy the experience but so that others would be forced to endure watching them. Their faces were locked into catalogue-model pouts because they dared not display any genuine emotion for fear that it would jeopardise their wholly imaginary chances of appearing on the pages of trendy lifestyle magazines in the City. Ensconced in chairs or draped across taupe loungers they watched the world watching them desperately hoping to be a part of something...anything as long as they were getting attention. As his lighter belched shards of flame he saw that those people were neither here nor there. Rather they were somewhere else in between as insubstantial as reflections captured for a passing instant in the corner of a spectacle lens, or phantoms blaming their incorporeal torments on anyone but themselves. Too deep a drag on his cigarette scorched his lungs and his muttered insults were lost in cancer-laden sputtering.

Craig had walked for longer than usual. He had not been anywhere in particular and he had no destination in mind, but as always he ended up back in the place he found the least uncomfortable. Nothing greeted him when he opened his front door other than the pseudo-Gregorian hum of the fridge freezer. He hated the emptiness of that sound almost more than he hated anything else. It was in that near silence that he remembered. Everything. To shut out the screams he put the kettle on to boil, turned on the television, set some porn clips streaming (he was a registered opt-in, a.k.a a pervert apparently) and started to recite the ingredients of a box of cereals as he poured some into a bowl. The plants on the kitchen window sill needed to be watered, and in the dribbling droplets he saw flashes of things that were but that should never have been. He put the measuring jug down and forced himself to stare at the television until there was nothing else in his mind except the images on the screen. It was a news report about the burgeoning black market for old fashioned light bulbs and pirate non-digital television stations. The police were conducting random sweeps of neighbourhoods arresting and detaining anyone found in possession of devices that were in violation of the government’s environmental policies, citing breaches of public order as justification for their abrupt incursions. Captain Ahab had to go hunt his whale. Except the government was not motivated by rage or driven by vengeance but rather by a cold, calculating and overwhelming need to control through which they drew plans within plans that would unmake the very spheres of heaven if it so served their purpose. In between the lines of the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the television screen Craig read and understood more than they dreamed a working man ever could. But the kettle boiled and all such knowledge was bounced around the ceiling by the sound of its raging hiss.
            Not that he wanted to know or even that he really cared. Anymore. He had once cared about many things but ever since he came “home” he realised that all he cared about was watching the country fall apart because that was exactly what it deserved. The Big Society had become a vast network of interns, spivs and the funemployed fuelled by the lives of millions upon millions of shop assistants, casual labourers and immigrants. So little work was being done by so many at the top of the ladder that they had plenty of time to concoct ways of blaming everyone at the bottom for their problems. Untold numbers of opportunities had been wasted. So much potential squandered. The truly excellent had been left to wallow in the fragments of their fruitless lives whilst those with no qualities other than the ambition to exploit the opportunities that they were able to purchase promoted themselves and their own kind in an endless nepotistic circle-jerk. They watched from on-high as the consequences of their amateur fumblings cascaded onto the land below and left it barren in their wake. Craig paused one of the porn clips but left the others running on low volumes in the background as he made tea. If the situation had not been so laughable he would have cried. Sometimes he cried anyway between stifled laughs in the dark when he was left with only late night repeats for company.
A great misery bubbled up in his heart like tar from the bottom of a lake which ensnared him mid-thought and dragged him down into a relentless gloom where time would turn him into a philosophical fossil, a curio, a knick-knack on the desk of some future professor of Palaeontology. In such times it was as if he had no mouth but somehow found a way to scream. No one heard him of course, or if they did they decided to treat him like he was being kettled by his own mind. So much for the military covenant, all that had been good for was to get people used to being comfortable with soldiers so that there was not too much disagreement when men with guns, men like he had once been, started appearing on street corners without warning. Not that it would have mattered if there had been, guns could inflict a lot of damage without a shot even being fired. Craig scooped up the last mass of cereal in the bowl and it was only as he swallowed it that he realised it left a bad taste in his mouth. Or rather not exactly bad, just not particularly good either. It was a taste without taste, or a texture without substance. If he did not know better he would have said he was not eating. His face wrinkled in disgust on the level of Jake Gyllenhaal waking up to discover that he had become a normal looking man and all the easy privileges of his sex appeal had been snatched away from him. Too aware of the non-taste Craig let the grainy paste slide down his throat before he sat at the table and watched shadows chase the hour-hand round the clock.

The rain had been turned the colour of old, sweat-stained pillows by the local chemical factories. Slightly greasier drops of it had a hard time blending in with the river water and just floated on the surface, tiny discs of curdled egg against soy sauce sludge. But those facts were attracting less attention than the news that a few shop windows had been smashed on the high street during a protest. A couple of students with high-bound dreadlocks were giving out photocopied socialist newsletters to anyone who looked receptive around a nearby hot dog stand. Craig took one and skulked away under the awning of a charity shop doorway to avoid being eyeballed by the many concerned citizens who were loudly airing their discontent...with such assertive displays of discontent. But he was used to that kind of double-think nonsense, as a soldier he had been charged with defending democracy not practicing it. The well-meaning but misinformed pedestrians gawking at the boarded-up shop fronts operated under a principle that was essentially the same. One of the volunteer staff watched him browse through the latest must-have-reads that no one had actually bothered to read. Most of them had been sheepishly thumbed-through, others were untouched whilst a few were even lucky enough to have folded page corners so that their owners would not lose the place they had no intention of returning to. But regardless of their condition it was clear they were all books bought for the sake of appearances. Nothing more. They even had their original retail stickers, replete with superfluous praise still on their front covers.
            ‘This is a shop, not a library.’ A face built out of crème-foundation geo-strata lisped at him through a crack that had opened in the door without even the hint of a sound. Well, she did not want to disturb her “dearies” in the shop by triggering the door chime. They would never have forgiven her.
            Momentarily drenched in the odours of tattered cloth, mildew and floral body spray Craig did not know how to respond to the dour wench who clutched her Mother of Pearl necklace and glared at him. Until he remembered himself, put the book he was considering not buying down on the display and walked off in the direction of somewhere else.
            Mission accomplished, she thought as she picked the book up and looked at the cover and gave it an “I would never read that” sneer. She dusted it off as though Craig’s fingers had dripped ash and slid the book back into the place it would stay until it was too old to sell and got thrown out or stolen.
            The next few shops were empty. “Closing Down” posters and other signs of the times still hung in their windows. Piles of unopened business mail gathered just on the other side of the doors as though they were desperate to be unleashed on the world again. Further down the street Craig saw a man clutching a bottle of miscellaneous budget-priced booze and cowering in the mouth of an alley next to a derelict bank. But it was not a man, it was boy. No older than his early-twenties. Jobless, homeless, lifeless. His eyes were raw all through as if freight trains ran along his blood vessels. He could smell him from across the road. Everyone was avoiding him, but not because of his smell. No, that they could tolerate. They gave him a wide berth because of what he reminded them of. Their own failures that lurked just beneath the surface of their superficial success. They stepped around him as they would a plague pit, holding their iPhones like posies to avoid infection by his poverty. Yet it was not the boy’s appearance or smell that drew Craig’s attention, it was the make-shift poster propped up by his side. There was a picture of Sean stuck to it. Crudely scrawled beneath the picture was the question, “Have you seen this man?” Craig realised that he had not seen him since he appeared on his doorstep broken and alone, in desperate need of help but too ashamed and proud to ask for it.
            ‘You know Sean?’ The boy asked through a burp as Craig approached, eyes locked on the picture.
            He looked terrible up close, but Craig had seen worse. Much worse. ‘Yes. What happened to him?’
‘I don’t know. We were sharing a kipping spot behind the bins behind a supermarket. One day I woke up and he’d fucked off.’ The boy set down his bottle with slow motion indignity.
            ‘How long ago was that?’
            ‘Two...’, there was an internal struggle as the boy synched his memory with the passage of the sun across the sky, ‘...three weeks.’
            ‘Do you know where he might have gone?’ There was more than likely no answer; the boy did not look like he even knew where he was. But then it was a flat pack town, so he could have been anywhere in the country and it would have made no difference.
            ‘Maybe.’ As he took a swig of his drink something crossed his mind and the boy shrugged. Well, it was more like a spasm as though someone had just ground out a cigarette on his grave. He knew where Sean might have gone. He had talked about it once or twice. He looked at Craig as though across a great distance and muttered, ‘I don’t think he’ll be coming back.’

The Crescent was a typical estate pub, crying out for a drug raid or failed health inspection to shut it down and put the locals out of the place’s misery. A battered pool table with a couple of missing balls and one and a half cues dominated the far corner. Most of the furniture was stickier than bed clothes in an out of the way Travelodge. The lighting was dingy enough that even a mole would have found it inadequate. The place had a distinctive aroma of stale beer mixed with detergent and sweat that seemed to permeate everything and everyone. It clung to the customers long after they left, but to be honest most of them smelled like that when they arrived. There was a “kitchen” visible through a door behind the bar, but there were no menus to order from for which his stomach and intestines would be eternally grateful. Some tattered English flags were still hung in the windows from some football tournament or another, remnants of a patriotism that the country did not deserve. In short it was a shit hole, but it was his kind of shit hole.
Craig’s temples twitched at the hideous squealing from the juke box. The same bland track that was apparently all the rage like OMFG everywhere had been played at least half a dozen times in the last hour and somewhere deep inside him the last threads of his patience felt like they were being frayed on the teeth of a tenon saw. He had almost forgotten why he did not go out much, but he was getting a crash course in total recall. His usual table had been taken by a group of ladettes out on the lash so he stood alone letting the bar prop him up. His pint tasted like the pipes had never been cleaned but it was doing the job. Not quick enough though, he would have to switch to the hard stuff if he wanted to get through the night. Not that he had any pressing plans, other than to get drunk enough to forget that Sean was...gone. He had seen and caused his fair share of death, but he had never faced it like that before. All the others could be explained or excused one way or another, but the loss of Sean he could not rationalise even though he knew exactly why he had killed himself. It was hard to admit that some people just had no reason to live and easy to pretend otherwise. Everyone else forced themselves to believe that there was meaning and purpose to their time in the land of the living, but an unlucky few saw through all the bluster and realised that it was all pointless and that a quick end was the best that one could wish for. The only real difference between them and ordinary people was hope. As he looked around at the bar Craig saw that hope was in short supply.
            He certainly had none of his own to spare and the bottles of generic liquor on the back wall of the bar were looking increasingly appealing. He was not planning to drown his sorrows, but they were planning to drown him. He had a sneaking suspicion that they would succeed, not that he really minded that. The bartender knew what he was thinking; he must have seen that look a thousand times. The look that suggested a bloke had hit rock bottom about six feet ago and he showed no signs of stopping any time soon. A glass and a bottle were on the bar before Craig had even reached for his wallet. He started to drink something which was masquerading as whiskey and his mouth shrivelled in protest as it came into contact with the liquid. Whatever it actually was, it would do. Do what exactly? Help him to forget? Maybe for a while, but the memories always came back. No matter how deep he buried them, no matter how far he ran they always came back. Maybe Sean had the right idea of getting out whilst he was young. Before he became a prisoner of his rapidly decaying body, trapped inside a shell of withering flesh with only his memories, regrets and medication for company. At least that way he kept what little pride and dignity he had, and the few good things in his life were not lost amongst all the misery, the fear and pointless recriminations.
The music improved, but not by much. At least a few of his old favourites were played, although they reminded him of his glory days they did nothing to really lighten his mood. A great, black hound covered in long-healed scars was scowling at him from a filthy blanket behind the bar. It gnawed on a bone and knew that Craig envied it for its simple life, for its ability to simply be without worrying about why. A few more pints and three quarters of the way through the bottle Craig staggered to the typically digusting toilets. He collapsed around the first toilet bowl he literally stumbled across. After the first lost bout with his stomach he pressed his forehead against the frigid porcelain and cried. He worried that someone would come in and find him like that but there was not much chance of that happening, no one would come looking for him and even if they did they had seen it all before. The sight of a grown man coughing his guts up and sobbing was nothing new or surprising to them; they had probably done it themselves a few times and knew exactly how he felt and why. So he carried on and wept for himself, for Sean, the town’s people and for all the men he had seen killed in the wars. But more than that he wept for the lives that they would never live simply because they were not allowed or could not afford to.

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