Short story: Divorce

5 Nov

Last year, back when I was living in London, I wrote this short story, but I never did anything with it. I’ve just come across it on my laptop and decided that I should add it to the blog. It is the first and only one I’ve written, so I don’t know if it’s any good, but here goes nothing:

Shuffling past the endless row of bicycle frames, the distant glow of the underground guiding him along the murky back streets of East London like the Star of Bethlehem, the weathered pensioner pulled at his solid gold watch. An arctic wind bit at his exposed ears like a snarling wolf as he wrenched away forty years of fidelity, catching a half-formed tear in the crevices beneath his eyes. He clutched at his hood, covering his balding crown with woolly warmth, slipping his new treasure into his pocket as he did so. His jewellery, instead of being the proud companion of his left wrist, would now sit with the lint and dirty tissues that soiled his winter coat.

Prized possessions filled the bag over his shoulder, weighing him down as he walked into the light. Each item told its own story, a satchel of memories cutting into his shoulder like a blunt knife into an overcooked slab of tough steak. In his arms sat a box, brimming with books accumulated over many long years, aching his muscles so. How representative of the entire situation, he reasoned to himself. Once again it was the source of his love that caused so much pain.

It was not just a piece of the man’s life that was lost, but his whole reason for living. An incentive to get out of bed in the morning and the distraction that kept him awake in it at night. It would, of course, be the little things that he missed the most. The friendship, the conversations, the way that they both knew each other inside out and the way that he always knew just what to say, always knew the right time. Two souls destined to float through eternity together, forever. Perhaps, in the end, it was not meant to be. His first love, no more.

Walking over the bridge, he stared towards the Thames. Gazing at nothing in particular, he placed the box by his weary feet and leaned on the brick wall, cold as his mood. He ran his palm over the icy pebbled surface and watched the moon in the sky, full as the hope in his heart on the day that they met.

A sense of guilt flashed over him as he stopped to stare at the dark December skyline. His thoughts drifted towards missed opportunities, the things that he wished he had done, what he should have said, how he would have acted differently. Those weekends he spent in the arms of another, lying about his location in order to avoid the consequences. The business trip to Prague where he liaised with the locals, missing his morning conference along the way. The pursuit of short-term pleasure over his long-term partner. Stupid, reckless mistakes that should have been consigned to his youth.

A vagrant shivered by his feet and craned his neck upwards to try and catch eyes, but the once-proud man was lost in his thoughts, choking up as his life followed the puddles into London’s sewer system. A tug at his trouser leg shook him from this other dimension.

“Sorry young man, I didn’t see you down there.”

“S’ok sir, just you’re in my bed n’all. Don’t spose you’ve got any change you can lend me?”

The man reservedly fumbled for his wallet. He had never given money to a begger before. He had never given money to anyone that he didn’t need to. “Of course, you need it more than I do” he replied as he separated the Queen’s head from her contemporaries. “Here you go” he said as he thought to himself. Possessions meant nothing without a purpose, what use had he for the belongings he treasured? They only weighed him down.

Picking up his satchel, he paused for a moment before removing a beautiful grey cashmere scarf and running it through his fingers. A gift for thirty years of faithful companionship, it had accompanied his person for over ten years, but was barely worn. Saved for special occasions only, it had adorned his neck on barely a dozen occasions. He passed it to the down and out, sat on the bridge in his sleeping bag.

“Take it” he said. “Are you sure?” replied the man through chattering lips. “Take it. It’s bitter out here. You need it more than I do.”

The satchel swapped shoulders. The box returned to the arms of its owner and the three stepped tentatively into the night. The cashmere scarf draped surprisingly around the neck of its new landlord. The glow from the tube station loomed in the distance and his tired feet shuffled towards it. It was getting late, around eight o’clock in the evening, and he longed for comfort…warmth…strength.

His wrinkled brow frowned as he considered the reasons for the peril of the evening. Had he made the most of their time together?  He loved that time. The best years of his long life, he considered them. At least he could look back with fond memories, he reassured himself. It hadn’t ended on a sour note, as amicably as can reasonably be expected. Maybe he would visit occasionally. Maybe not.

His arms ached from the weight of the books. A lifetimes worth of knowledge condensed into a selection of novels, guidebooks, textbooks and, of course, a solid dictionary and thesaurus set. Each page well worn, each corner had tasted the saliva on his finger as he flicked through the chapters. Unlike him, they had aged well. He had prided himself in keeping them in good condition. Not one tear amongst the set. Nor a single stain. Not even so much as a mug ring on a back cover. He loved them.

His scuffed shoes passed a school on his left hand side. His eyes recognised the crumbling building, it had been the feature shot in an article in the local newspaper two weeks ago. The story told how the students were failing badly, which had resulted in less funding for an institution that desperately needed it. The chalkboards hung from their screws, the damp attacked the walls and shoes stuck to the floor. It was a dire place. A great story. He should know, he wrote it.

He recalled the library books. Pages torn from their spines, doodles obscuring the words and covers bent backwards, doubled over in pain. A sharp contrast to his own belongings. He strode towards the double doors, once proud solid specimens, now graffiti-laden and miserable, and brushed the stones from the entrance mat. The sound of creaking knees barely broke the silence as he obscured the ‘welcome’ sign with his box.

He took his umbrella, a Christmas present two years ago from his Secret Santa. He was sure it was Becky, the receptionist at work, as he recalled running into work as fast as his still half-asleep legs would allow, rain-sodden and shivering. “Don’t you have an umbrella?” she had enquired. He had ignored her, preferring to shake himself like a wet German Shepherd, coating the front of her desk with second-hand rain water. The present made him feel bad for his rudeness. He told himself that he would give her an all-knowing wink and a smile the next time he came into work from the rain, but he never did. Forgetfulness is easy when you’re busy. Opening it up, he placed it gently over the uncovered box. The books had stayed pristine all their life; he wasn’t about to let that change now.

With a renewed spring in his step, he headed back towards the warm glow. Just around the corner sat the tube station sign, a beacon of hope and glory to a world-weary man. He trod carefully on the frozen steps, a broken hip being towards the bottom of his to-do list, and disappeared into the underworld. Again he fumbled in his pocket, his arthritic digits struggling to grip hold of his oyster card in the leather holder he had bought for the very purpose of carrying it.

As he placed it on the reader, he checked the balance of his card. £12.40 it read. No need to top up now he thought. Would he need to top up again, he wondered? The heavily advertised barriers opened automatically and he walked through, carrying the satchel in his palms, slightly sweaty from the exertion of the trip.

Going down the escalator, the smell of alcohol filled his nostrils and he felt a push in his back. Two young girls, goose pimples bubbling on their exposed skin shoved their way past, knocking him as they went. He felt the handles slip through his fingers as the revellers made their way down the metal steps, heels clicking as they ran for the tube. It what felt like a thousand long seconds, the bag made its steep descent towards the metal step and BANG, the sound of smashed ceramics filled the air. The girls turned around sharply, silently and looked at each other with a mischievous look of horror etched onto their faces, before muttering an apology and quickening their step.

He knew immediately the source of the piercing ceramic scream. His vase, an antique that he had picked up at a car boot sale twenty years ago for a fistful of pennies that belied its true value, had perished in battle. It had experienced a good life, reasoned the man. He had lovingly filled it with fresh flowers from the local market twice a week since the first day he clapped eyes on it. Daffodils, lilies, roses and posies…all had adorned this work of art. Thousands of flowers had grown, lived and died within this now shattered ceramic guardian.

Without hesitating he picked up the satchel and peered inside. Look on the bright side he considered; only the vase had broken. Not that there was much more left in his rapidly disappearing life. He picked up the shattered crockery and shovelled it into a carrier bag. Little use for it now, he reasoned. Like him, it had outlived its usefulness.

Arriving at the bottom of the escalators with a bump, he noticed the girls sitting on a cold, metal bench towards the end of the platform. Must have missed their train, he reasoned. One sat with her head between her legs, the other rubbing her back rhythmically. The poisonous alcohols latest victim struck down. There was no drinking allowed on the tube, just drunks. As he considered offering to help, the train pulled in.

The lights fizzed on and off in the carriage like the lights in a cheap horror flick. Eight seats, eight half-cut, half-feral, youths filling them. No changes there, thought the man as he leant his frail body against the doors. No use reasoning with them, he decided. Only two stops to go and better for them to feel guilty about it when time has hit them too and I was nothing but a cold, stiff corpse in the ground. The lights went out again.

BLEURGH

Great. These kids today can’t hold their liquor, the old man reasoned, considering launching into a ‘in my day’ tirade against the youths. The smell filled his nostrils, overpowering all other smells and forcing his body to recoil. He bit his lip and scrunched up his nose, condensing his face into a ball of sagging features. As he felt an unfamiliar sensation creeping over his shoes, the lights shone on.

The satchel was covered.

Blood boiled through swollen arteries, pumping fury into an overworked brain. Weakened chest muscles contracted around asthmatic lungs. Words of apology flew past unwelcoming ears and teeth grinded against their downstairs neighbours. Fingers clenched and toes curled. Stressful rage attacked every limb, every organ and every sense.

Count to ten, count to TEN, COUNT TO TEN, COUNT TO FUCKING TEN, his brain screamed at him.

Kill them all, KILL them all, KILL THEM ALL, KILL THEM FUCKING ALL, his heart fumed at him.

He caught the terrified looks in the youngster’s eyes. He saw the green look in the offenders face. She looked terrible. She probably felt terrible. Her friend looked horrified. Horrified and apologetic. The man considered his options.

BING. The doors opened. “This is Stepney Green.” said the soothing, female tones of the automated announcer. “Change here for the Hammersmith and City line.”

The creaking of 65-year-old knees broke the deathly silence of the District line. Arthritic fingers opened the satchel pocket and quickly searched through for a most-cherished item. The youths grimaced as he rumbled through the second-hand alcohol and picked out his beloved. Wiping it on his jacket and waving at the open-mouthed teens with a vomit-covered mitt, he picked up his carrier bag of shattered memories and departed the train. He removed his sick-stained jacket and put it on the cold, metal bench. As the doors closed, he wiped his brow and counted to ten. Slowly. He counted twice more, before heading towards his friends, the barriers.

Having successfully negotiated the barriers, no mean feat on a day such as this, he shuffled home, free of the baggage that had weighed him down. Walking down the street towards number 57, he tried to put the events behind him. Tomorrow would be a better day. He could make plans, sort himself out, pick himself up and start again.

He stopped at the front garden of the house and kneeled down. His knees, having being oiled with the toils they had faced, no longer filled the silence with their creaks. He cleared a space in the flowerbed and dug down with his hands, digging deep until a sizeable hole had formed. The carrier bag of crockery fitted the hole like a glove as the heavens began to open and the man felt a freezing drop of water attack his head. He filled the hole and left the vase with the flowers that had earned it its living for all those years. The broken beauty had found peace.

He approached the door and scrabbled around for his keys. They were in the jacket, on the bench, at the train station. He knocked the door and it opened cautiously, the warmth cuddling his shivering body as it escaped from the hallway. “Are you OK?” asked the silver haired lady at the door. She too had not aged well, but looked like a typical grandmother, a kindly sort of woman. The man didn’t care what she looked like, he would always think her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Forgetting that his shoes still boasted a thin varnish of vomit, he pulled them off and placed them on the rack. He looked at his most beloved possession that he had rescued from the satchel and wiped the glass display with a tissue before placing it on the mantelpiece. He studied it for a moment, trying to remember when the photograph inside was taken. She looked so happy in it, he thought to himself. So did he.

“Come to bed, John” his wife said under hushed tones. “It will all be alright in the morning. It’s just the start of a new adventure.” He shuffled up the stairs, holding her hand as they entered the bed that they had shared for forty-four years together. Barbara and her esteemed husband John, a proud journalist for forty of those. “I love you” said John. “I love you too” replied Barbara. “And from tomorrow we can start enjoying your retirement.”

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