(Sisters of Mercy - Walk Away)
The green skip stank of grease, and cigarette ends, and last night’s fried fish. Bennett lifted the black plastic sack and heaved it into the skip, but the sack caught on the raised plastic edge and split, dribbling down the front and onto Bennett’s shoes. Bennett swore, pushed the sack all the way into the skip, and squinted at his watch. Half past ten. Christ. At least another hour and a half of washing dishes and peeling potatoes and dragging stinking rubbish out before he would get away, which meant at least another two hours before he was home. He turned to walk back towards the pub and a warm, orange light blossomed and grew until it took over the world and a strange wind took Bennett and threw him back along the yard and into the side of the green skip, a strange rushing, tugging wind that brought a roaring sound that grew and grew and then suddenly stopped, leaving a terrible silence.
He lay in a pool of half-eaten jacket potatoes and crushed eggshells. The silence vanished, and sound came rushing back in, a high-pitched screaming whistle, that after a few seconds separated out into its constituent parts: a ringing in his ears, the sound of every car alarm in the street going off, and a frantic, desperate screaming from inside the building. He stared at the back of the pub, trying to make sense of a world gone mad. There was a sharp crack, and one of the windows at the back shattered. Warm dark air came surging out, and Bennett thought - what, dark air? What the hell is dark air? Then he tasted the smoke and coughed, and he knew everything at once. There had been some kind of explosion, now there was a fire, people were screaming inside and nobody was coming out, he had been thrown yards backwards but had hit the hard plastic of the skip rather than the concrete, his right hip hurt but he didn’t think anything was broken, the night was cold and he could see every star in the sky and he could smell grease and chilli and dark thick smoke. There was another loud bang from inside the pub, and the sound of something large collapsing.
Bennett scrabbled to his feet, slipping on the potato skins. He hadn’t been aware of breathing since the moment he had looked at his watch, but now it became the whole focus of his being. His throat was tight and dry as he struggled to suck in some air, coughing on the smoke. He lurched away from the pub and through the gate into the back alley. It was dark, and as Bennett staggered towards the road he saw after-images of the orange light drifting across the darkness of his vision, one bright cloud following another. Then he was out of the alley and by the road, knowing that there was something he ought to do. Something important. A phone call. Bennett was about to cross the road towards the phone box, to dial 999, to tell someone about the light and the noise, but he stopped to cough again and there were blue flashes and more noise and warm air pushed at his face as vehicles raced past, and he knew that he didn’t need to get to the phone.
He sat down in a shop doorway, suddenly very tired, and leant back against the door of the shop and shut his eyes. The whistling in his ears had dropped to a comforting hum, and for a while he sat, eyes shut, just letting the orange clouds drift across his vision. He had no idea how long he stayed there, but after a while it occurred to him that he ought to be moving. Someone would have phoned Julie about the fire, she would be worried. He dragged himself to his feet, brushing off broken eggshell from his trousers, and started to walk down the street towards the blue lights and gathering crowd.
From nowhere, the thought came to him that if Julie had heard about the fire, her first thought might be of the insurance money. What if he went home, and could see disappointment behind the welcome? Could he bear it? He knew that she had been thinking of leaving him. He was almost certain that she was seeing someone else. She’d take Andy with her, no doubt, allow Bennett access, parceled out in mean little doses, and he’d have all the joy of seeing his son growing up calling another man his dad. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t go back. Maybe. He walked on, threading his way between people standing, talking in low voices. He tried not to think about the idea that had crept into his mind but it chattered insistently at him in a voice of abandoned excitement, making promises of freedom.
As he neared the pub he could see that there was little left of it. The centre of the building had collapsed, like a cardboard box that had been stamped on. Fire crews directed jets of water into the building, and the flames appeared to be dying down. There were a number of ambulances there, but the paramedics just stood by them, watching and waiting like everybody else. Bennett worked his way into the crowd, found somebody at the front who looked as if they had been there for a while, drinking in the whole spectacle.
“Excuse me.” Bennett said. “Has there been – I mean, has anyone come out?”
“Oh, there’s been people come out, mate,” he said, “but they weren’t moving around much if you know what I mean. Taken straight into the ambulances, but there won’t have been a rush to get them to the hospital, know what I mean? Gas explosion, that’s what it will have been. One leaking pipe, and the whole place goes up. Tragedy, like. They should sue. Well, their relatives should.”
Bennett turned, and walked along the street, past the park, down to the river, following the dark, sullen water through the city, walking, walking, away from the skeleton of the pub, away from the police, away from the ambulances and their waiting crews, away from the quiet crowds, away from home. He stopped when he reached a place where the river ran into a dark tunnel under a motorway flyover, the path leading back up into the lights and noise of the world. Bennett watched the water slide into the darkness, debris spinning lazily on its surface. He could go back, go home. Maybe there would be a reconciliation, but it would probably bring a few days’ grace and then it would be back to normal, the continual petty disagreements, the phone ringing but the caller hanging up when Bennett answered, the rows about money, the feeling that it wasn’t going to be all right again, not ever.
He could walk away now, no ties, no recriminations, start his life over again. How many men got the chance of a completely fresh start? How many men could wipe the slate clean and try again, not make the same old stupid mistakes, do it all again afresh with the benefit of experience and hindsight? Andy would miss him, but he was young, give it six months and he wouldn’t have more than a vague memory of his dad. The insurance money, on the other hand, would change the kid’s life. Decent house, new clothes, maybe a holiday every now and again. For the first time in his life, Bennett felt that he had a real choice, genuine freedom. How much freer could you be, than to choose whether to end one life, and begin another? He coughed, the smoke still scratching at his lungs, and spat into the river.
There was a third choice, though. Another starting again, another life. Go back, but make the effort to fix the things that weren’t right, work at it, work hard, put his family back together again. Face the problems, rather than avoiding them. Confront it, meet it, beat it. However you looked at it, the other choices both amounted to walking away. Bennett turned and walked back along the river, picking up the pace despite the dull pain he felt all over. He’d been given an opportunity few men were given, and he was going to make the most of it. Make the most of family, of home, of the hours and the love that he had already put into it. He walked all the way back into the city, but everything was becoming more and more painful, so when he reached the central bus station he dug in his pockets and managed to find the change for a fare.
Bennett got off the bus a stop early and walked into the estate, savouring the familiar. Outside the shop a crowd of kids was gathered, some on bikes, some just standing, trading insults and cigarettes and pulling wheelies. Bennett rounded the corner into his street and crossed so that he could walk in the morning sun, feeling the warmth on his skin. This wasn’t such a bad place. Julie’s red Peugeot was in the drive. He had just unlatched the front gate when he heard voices from behind the house, and knew that they must be in the back garden. Bennett walked around to the alley that ran past the tiny back gardens. As he walked down it he began to smile. If only he had a video camera to catch the look on Julie’s face. The look on Andy’s face. Daddy’s back, he decided he would say. Daddy’s back, and everything’s going to change, it’s all going to be better now.
He reached the back of his house, and leant on the fence, peering in between the leaves of the cypress bushes. Julie sat on her reclining chair on the slab of discoloured concrete they called the patio, her feet up, reading a magazine. Andy stood on the small patch of grass in just a nappy and a t-shirt, quivering with excitement, pointing at a butterfly which swooped and darted in the air.
“Daddy! Daddee!” he screamed.
Bennett started, then felt a wave of guilt and sadness wash over him, bleaching the colour from the day. How could he have thought about walking away? He had done it, he had made the decision and gone, if it wasn’t for a change of heart…
Julie couldn’t have heard yet. She must have thought he’d worked late, missed the last bus and stopped with a mate. That’s why she’s not grieving, that’s why she’s not inside sitting by a phone with red eyes and no make-up and her mother there to comfort her – and then all thought stopped, as the patio doors slid open, and Bennett watched himself step out, smile, shade his eyes from the sun.
“Daddy! Ook! Ook!” Andy shouted, jumping from one foot to another, still pointing at the butterfly. Bennett watched himself limp over to the boy, pick him up and swing him round in the air, and dump him screaming with laughter on the grass. Julie looked up at the Bennett who stood on the patio, pulled her sunglasses down her nose and smiled. He bent down, kissed her and as he did she put her arm around his neck, holding him down close so that the kiss went on and on, until it was interrupted by Andy bulldozing his way between them. The other Bennett sat down on a white plastic chair, picking up a newspaper. He looked tired, and his face was bruised, and from the way he stretched it out in front of him, he had hurt his leg. But as he took little looks at his wife, his son, he smiled, and the tiredness and the pain disappeared from his face.
Bennett felt the fence beneath his hands, the rough, splintery wood, the nail that hadn’t been beaten in properly. He could smell the creosote that he put on it last summer. He felt the warmth of the sun on his cheeks, he felt the heat of the asphalt path through the thin soles of his shoes, he heard the sound of lawnmowers and children playing. He watched the family play in the garden for a few more minutes, watched himself finish the newspaper despite Andy’s constant trick of popping his head up underneath it to grin at his daddy, and then he turned away from his wife, his child, himself and walked back down the alley, back past the shops, and away.