Death of a Power Station
By Mark Burrow
The four giant chimneys stick up like the legs of a table turned upside down. Smoke used to billow out of those stacks. Thick black plumes rising into the sky.
I put a cigarette out in the balcony planter attached to the railings. There aren’t any flowers in the dry soil, only fag ends. Lads from the estate are having a kickabout on the grass down below. They had called up and asked if I fancied a game. I wanted to but I felt too old to join them.
Mum yells from the kitchen, “Come and give us a hand.”
I think about lighting another cigarette. She hollers and I step back into the flat.
“The oven’s conked out,” mum says, coughing.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
She flicks the red power switch. “Take a look.”
Her cough doesn’t sound right to me. I remove the plug, slot it back in and flick the switch. “You paid the bill?”
“Don’t be a smart arse.”
I turn the dial and strike a match. The pilot light stopped working around the time dad left. “I can’t hear the gas,” I say, blowing the flame before it burns my finger.
“Pull the oven out,” she says.
I grab the sides of the oven, shuffling it one side at a time.
“Don’t rip the lino.”
I lean round and touch the rubber pipe for the gas line. It seems connected. “I don’t know what I’m looking at here,” I tell her.
She lights a cigarette after the coughing fit fades. “I’ll have to get the man out,” she says, wheezing. “That’s money I don’t have. You can fetch fish and chips.”
“I’m going to the pub.”
“Have supper first,” she says, opening her handbag in the living room.
“Don’t be soft,” I say, “I’ll buy it.”
She pauses, purse in hand. “Alright then.” She offers me a ciggie.
“I can’t smoke those things.”
“Suit yourself,” she says, going back to the oven, arms crossed, like staring at a machine will fix it.
I head to my bedroom and pull on a clean t-shirt, grabbing a new pack of fags and my wallet.
Dad would have known how to fix the oven. I wonder if that’s partly what she’s thinking.
Danny’s drunk when I get to The Builders. We’re both posties at the depot. Joined straight after school. He’s sitting at a table in a place the pub calls a beer garden. There’s no grass or any greenery. The chalk board attached to a wall is supposed to show the meals of the day and drink offers. All it says now is, “Leroy is a mong.”
“I’ve been waiting ages,” Danny says, vaping.
“Had to go to the chippie for mum.” I see that he’s nearly finished another pint. “What you drinking?”
I notice a smaller glass as well. “You doing chasers?”
He grins. “Double Jamieson’s, straight.”
I go into the bar and order the drinks from a barmaid I know.
“Danny’s battered,” she says.
She pulls a face. “Is it true that he decked his boss?”
I shrug. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there. How are your boys?”
Janice wasn’t much for smiling. She seemed at her happiest moaning. “The oldest has started shop lifting,” she says. “He’s fifteen. I told him, if you get caught, you’ll never get the job you want in JD Sports.”
“True enough,” I say, paying for the drinks and a bag of crisps with my card.
“Oh, guess who I saw the other day?” she says.
“Saw her... where?”
“In here. She asked about you.”
“What’d you tell her?”
“That you come in regular. Bindy’s so full of herself now she’s studying at the University of Scotland.”
I thought about correcting her. It wasn’t worth it. She’d tell me not to be uppity. It was Stirling, that’s where she’d gone to do American Studies.
There was another customer who wanted serving. “Janice, petal, in your own time.”
I carried the drinks and clenched a bag of crisps between my teeth, walking back into the beer garden with the mossy walls and broken guttering.
Danny drinks the whiskey in one.
I pull out my fags.
He takes a ciggie. I light mine with a plastic lighter and then I put the flame to his. “Have the police come round?”
“Nah,” he says, breathing out proper smoke, not that weak vaping mist.
The story was that Danny assaulted our line manager, Copeland. Did it in the staff canteen. I was out on my rounds in the van when it happened. “So, is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“You took the balls from the pool table, dropped them into a sock and walked up to Copes and smacked him round the head?”
“Knocked him off his chair,” he says.
I sip the lager. “Didn’t Ray Winstone do that?”
“Yeah, in Scum,” says Danny, “that’s where I got the idea.”
“That’s a good film.”
“’Who’s your daddy?’” says Danny, sort of laughing.
The blue sky darkens as the sun sets. The air turns colder. We’re coming to the end of summer and the temperature is dropping. I open the crisps and start eating. He eats them too, telling me about how Copes had told him off “like a little boy” for messing up post codes. Copes is too cocky by half. He had it coming, but Danny was making a lot of mistakes, usually down to hangovers. And he was never the sharpest tool in the box.
My stomach rumbles. Drinking on an empty stomach. Should have had some chips at least.
“I think I fractured Cope’s eye socket,” he says.
What he’s done is starting to sink in. He’ll stagger home to his parents’ flat and pass out drunk in his bedroom, fully clothed, Arsenal posters stuck to the walls, on the same single bed he’d slept in since he was a boy. The police will knock on his door and his stepdad will let them in and he’ll wake up and try to escape in a hungover panic, jumping off a second-floor balcony and breaking both his ankles. He’ll be taken to hospital and the bones will be set and he’ll be put in plaster and charged with Actual Bodily Harm. He’ll serve six months in a Young Offenders Institute.
I buy another drink for him.
“No, it’s my turn,” he protests.
“It’s on me.”
We both know he won’t be buying drinks for some time. It’ll take years to turn his life around from here. Not that it was much to start with.
I sit on a crumbling wall, smoking cigarettes. I only have my t-shirt on and I’m shivering. I’m thinking about the lads playing football on the grass earlier when I hear an engine and see the headlights of a car.
It’s Bindy come to pick me up. She replied to my message and agreed to meet. I feel nervous about seeing her. We went out for ages at school and stayed together when she was at college too. Everyone said we’d be married and then she went to university and I got stuck delivering letters and parcels.
She drives up fast to the wall and then stamps the brakes. The white headlights hurt my eyes. “Come on, get in,” she shouts.
The car is a complete tip. Littered with empty fast-food boxes and plastic bottles. It stinks of the spliff she’s smoking. “You want some?” she says.
“Nah, you’re fine,” I reply and we look at each other and kiss properly. Girls usually have no idea how to kiss. Bindy does. We finally separate and she reverses, driving onto the road.
“How long you been back?”
“A few days. It’s mum’s birthday.”
“Right. I completely forgot.”
“You should come over.”
I look at Bindy. We both know that this won’t happen. One of the problems we had was that her mum and dad never thought I was good enough for their brainy little girl. I turn the heater up and light a cigarette. She’s listening to Pink Floyd on her crappy car stereo. The streets are deserted at this hour. We pass the railway arches and the gas works and then we’re driving by the derelict, fenced off power station. They’re supposed to be turning the buildings into luxury flats. One day, it’ll be full of rich people living in their city pads.
“Are you seeing anyone?” I ask her.
She opens the driver’s window and flicks out the joint. “I am,” she says.
“What’s his name?”
“Patrick. He’s studying modern history.”
“You serious about him?”
She shrugs. “What about you?”
I put my hand on her knee and slide my fingers under her skirt, feeling her soft skin. “It’s good to see you again.” She opens her legs slightly and breathes in as my hand goes up between her thighs. There are other girls. There’s no shortage of them round here, but none of them are remotely like Bindy. I believed people when they said we’d be married. I thought we would find a place and have a family. I felt certain it would happen and we’d be happy together. I was shocked at how she begged and pleaded with me to go to college and do A-levels. That’s when I realised the two of us were on different paths.
She parks on a road that leads to the warehouses by the river. The power station looms high over us with its dark brown bricks and cream chimney stacks. We climb into the back seat of her small car. I push a crumpled cardboard tray for chicken nuggets into the footwell, sweeping off crumbs and bits of lettuce and then pull down my jeans and boxers. She removes her knickers and sits across my lap. I don’t ask if she’s still on the pill. When our mouths come together it makes me realise how dull the other girls are. I then feel a sense of anger. I know that Bindy is using me. That she has come back from university and that she has a low boredom threshold. She is one of those people who can’t stand to be on their own. She would rather get stoned and sit on my dick than stay alone in her room.
Except I messaged her. Not the other way around. I’m the one who didn’t want to be by myself after watching Danny, my best mate, disappear down the drain. I wonder if she has real feelings for me. If she’s thinking of me when she’s with Patrick or whoever. My head is a mess. Being with her now is better than ever. There’s no one like Bindy. The way she kisses. The power station is dead and the warehouse buildings are falling apart. Mum has lung cancer. Dad’s gone. Danny will have a criminal record. I’m too old for a kickabout on the grass. But tonight, right at this moment, Bindy is warmth and life and goodness.
Except she’s using me.
That’s the truth.
I’m a bit of a thickie.
Postman Pat. Living with his mum. A regular in The Builders. Common as muck.
I grab her long blonde hair and yank it. I switch from licking her ear to biting it.
I know I’m going too far.
“Ow.” She rolls off me, holding her ear lobe. “That really hurts.”
I sit there, motionless. “If I moved to Scotland, could we start dating again?”
She looks at me as if I’ve lost my marbles. I realise we’re strangers, that whatever connection we had, it’s well and truly gone. She grabs her knickers and I watch as she squeezes into the driver’s seat. I pull up my boxers and jeans, checking my fags, wallet and keys are in my pockets. “I’ll walk back. Say happy birthday to your mum for me.” I can’t make out her reply. Not sure she does. The engine revs the second I’ve slammed shut the car door. I tighten my belt, watching the red taillights disappear down the long black road. The car turns sharply and vanishes.
A wave of loneliness comes over me. I light a cigarette, looking at the industrial chimneys. She’ll drive home and message Patrick, lying on her double bed with its floral duvet, a poster of Bob Dylan in his pre-electric days on the wall. She’ll do some studying the next morning and ‘borrow’ money from her father to buy a present for her mother. She will do a year of study in America as part of her degree. After graduation, she’ll live in New York, working as a financial journalist for a hedge fund magazine.
I’ll stay round here for a while longer, caring for mum until the day comes when I have to bag up her clothes and take them to the charity shop. Get the oven collected for scrap. Sell her furniture.
Streetlights glisten on the oily tarmac.
I feel like the insides of those giant chimneys. Dirty and broken. Part of a bygone age. At least the station can be turned into luxury apartments for the toffs, whereas I’m stuck as me.
There’s a sound a football makes when its kicked in-between high concrete walls.
I wanted to go down earlier and have a kickabout with those lads. Show off my skills.
I wish I didn’t have to be this old.