He steps out of the building and pulls his tie from his neck, stuffing it into his jacket pocket like it’s something to be ashamed of – like a bra or a pair of knickers sneaked from a washing line in passing. His shirt is sticking to his back and there’s a sour smell coming from under his arms. The heat and the roar of the traffic hit him at once. He stops on the top step, puts the carrier down between his feet, undoes his shirt collar, wipes his face with his hand. He stands there, looking out over the traffic to the crowds milling through the pedestrian precinct on the other side. A flag fluttering on the roof of a department store. A Big Issue seller standing by the entrance to the underpass. People strolling along the top of the city wall. The sun catching on a jet, making it glint like a star. Shreds of white cloud, like scuffs on the sky.
All over now.
He fishes in his top pocket and checks that they’re still in there: his bus ticket and his £20 note – the one he hasn’t told them about. The one he’s been saving for just this time and occasion. He tucks them back inside. Then he picks up his bag again and steps down to the pavement and across to the underpass, down into the dark and the pissy smell, the graffitied tiling, the echo of the traffic, then along and up the other side. The Big Issue seller waves a copy at, Paris Hilton pouting from the cover. But he keeps moving ahead – got mine, thanks – hating the lie, but wanting to hold onto the money for now. Wanting to keep the note intact for the right purpose.
He goes around the corner by the bus station, then across past Tourist Info and along to a pub. The Mile Post. Quiet inside after the lunchtime crowds. A cosy, parlour-type bar-room. A middle-aged couple sitting at one of the side tables, facing one another, leaning in, glasses of Coke or Something-and-Coke within reach. An elderly chap propped up at the bar-end, dralon blazer and brogues, reading the Telegraph. Low-lit corners. Subdued conversation. Even the fruit machine seems muted, blooping and beeping like it’s underwater. Still the faint tang of nicotine in the air from pre-prohibition days – but settled into an essence now, like incense in a chapel. He’s glad he’s packed it up, though now’s the time he could do with one. A cigar wouldn’t hurt, perhaps.
He goes to the bar and looks at the taps. Pedigree. Abbot. Landlord’s. Carlsberg Export. Orangeboom. The barman appears from the shadows. The most welcoming expression he’s seen all day – apart from that guy at the Court. He was decent. Unexpectedly so. People are full of surprises. He orders a pint of Export and a Bells, and when they come he sends the Bells ringing down his gullet and asks for another, plus a panatella. The old boy rattles his paper, sips his pint, sniffs, turns a page – opening it out like he’s preparing to smother a fire, or origami a fighter plane. The finance pages. Something about a buy-in. £500 million. Two suits smiling out against a corporate backdrop.
£500 million. A thousand times a thousand times five-hundred. Fifty-thousand times what he’s just written off to the receiver. How high would that go if you piled it up in pound coins? How many suitcases would you need to hold it if it was all in used twenties? Twenty-five million twenty-pound notes.
The whisky and cigar arrive and he hands over the twenty, pops the cigar in his inside pocket, takes the top off the pint. The couple at the side table laugh over something, their heads nodding closer together. He thinks he recognises the woman from the Court – someone he saw moving about in the office. Something about the spectacles and the hairdo, the starchy white blouse and long skirt. The chap looks the clerky type, too. Dark suit, white shirt, Oxfords. He pockets his change, picks up the drinks and moves towards the garden door. The old boy nods at the barman, who turns to the optics with a glass. Somewhere out on the street, a siren whoops – the sound like a scream above the background mumble of traffic.
Out in the garden, a few smokers sit around, enjoying the sun. He unwraps the cigar and cadges a light, then takes a table alone in the far corner, where the road is visible through a trellis fence. The whisky settles into his bloodstream like anaesthetic and lifts the weight in his stomach. He downs the other one, then puffs at the cigar. It tastes fucking horrible. It’s been too long. The beer helps to wash it down. Through the fence, he sees people flowing around and through the shop doors like herds of sheep being rounded up from all sides. He takes another mouthful of beer, not really knowing what he wants to think, not really wanting to think at all, blocking out the last few hours, letting the drink do its stuff. A woman coming out of a clothes shop with a bulging pink carrier bag. A large chap in a suit standing by a shop door, smoking, checking something on his phone. A student with a rucksack and iPod, shuffling along. Pigeons pecking at the cobble stones in the precinct.
No one to give him grief anymore. No more letters. No more threats. Maybe he can start to sleep at night now. He takes the change from the twenty out of his pocket and spreads it on the table. £11.80. That’s it. Nothing in the bank – not that there ever was. No bank account anymore, anyway. No credit or debit cards. No cheque book. No savings.
A tenner. A pound coin. A fifty pence piece. Three ten pence pieces.
He puts it all back in his pocket, takes another puff, takes another drink – the glass half-empty already. Maybe it’s not so much about thinking, more about feeling. Feeling like someone’s sliced him from sternum to crotch and pulled everything out. And the other thing, too. Having nothing except what’s in that pocket. The sum total. Until payday – and where was that going to go now? How do you have your money paid in when there’s nothing to pay it into? They probably told him at the receiver’s office, but it’s gone. Might be something in the leaflets they gave him, in the carrier bag. He’d have a look sometime. But not now. Things to do now. A plan to follow through. Tomorrow can be worried about when it comes.
He takes one last drag at the cigar, grinds it out in the ashtray, downs the rest of his glass. He wants it to work as quickly as possible. Drown it all out. He goes back inside and puts the empties on the bar. The old boy’s at the fruit machine, his paper folded and left on his seat, another pint waiting. The middle-aged couple have gone, ice-melt in the bottoms of their glasses, lemon slices like marooned boats. The barman’s around the other side. Warm and quiet and drowsy in there. He stands at the bar with his hand in his pocket, looking at the pump handles, looking at the optics, looking at the shards of light glinting on every surface. And he feels something rising in him suddenly. The whisky. The cigar taste in his mouth. The monster that’s been growing there all this time, like a cancer. He runs for the toilets and just makes it into a cubicle before it all comes back up. The lot. Every last churn and membrane. And he’s kneeling there, heaving it into the bowl in the odour of piss and disinfectant, and even when it’s all gone he still retches. Like being exorcised. Ripping the fucking devil out, stink and everything. He tears off some paper and wipes his mouth, then gets up and pulls the handle. At the washbasin, he turns on the cold tap, rinses his mouth out, splashes his face, runs his wet hands through his hair, looks in the mirror. His eyes look like they’ve crashed into his head.
Outside in the street, the world’s moving at strange speeds and different angles around him, like he’s standing in the middle of a fairground waltzer. He leans into the crowds, impelled forwards by his own momentum. No volition involved. A matter of pure gravity, like something falling. People loom up and slide around at the edges, as if he’s walking inside a huge glass bubble. There’s a vacancy in his head now, which is what he wants. No thoughts. No feelings. No past or future. The now-moments connecting in the spaces ahead. He imagines a line on the pavement and tries to step along it, but it keeps shifting. Like that line on the map the guy gave him. Take the corner, change your bearing, follow your nose, keep going ‘til you get there. Wherever it is.
He crosses a road – a car horn blaring at him from somewhere – and comes to a row of shops. Another pub, a tyre depot, an offy, a chippie. He skews into that and orders a piece of cod and a large portion of chips, open, dousing the food in vinegar and ketchup when it comes, shaking a salt pot over until it’s frosted. Outside, he leans against a wall and begins to eat, breaking off chunks of the steaming white fish and pushing it into his mouth – the best thing he’s tasted for ages. When it’s all gone – every last crumb of greasy batter – he chucks the paper in a waste bin and goes into the offy. He buys a can of Kestrel Super, drops it in his carrier, then goes out and walks along to the bus stop. He’s just got there, shuffling in behind a group of people, when a bus comes. He gets on last, shows the ticket, goes upstairs, goes down the aisle to the back. There’s only two other people sitting up there – a student who got on just ahead of him, ears cupped in her headphones, and another woman sitting about halfway back. He noticed her looking at him as he was down in the street. He feels something emanate from her as he walks past her now – a look on her face, as though she might have known him from somewhere. He sits and looks at the back of her head, waiting for her to turn her profile towards him. Instead, as soon as the bus starts moving again, she stands and goes downstairs.
The bus idles along for a couple of miles to the outskirts of the town – traffic lights, roundabouts, a level crossing – stopping occasionally to pick people up. Nobody else comes upstairs, though. He can hear the music from the student’s headphones, sounding like a heartbeat with a background blood-rush of static. He takes out the can and pops the tab, takes a long swig, feels it going down, mixing with the juices, numbing everything again. The bus slows for another stop by an Aldi store and the student gets up and goes downstairs.
And this feels comfortable at last – up here, in this back seat, alone now, sealed in from the world outside, the beer doing its thing. A pocketful of loose change and nothing else. And it suddenly seems oddly attractive, too – the whole idea of it. Having nothing. Having himself here with this can, the world losing its edges, nothing feeling solid or definite any more. Like he’s in the eye of a vortex – everything spinning dog-mad around him, while he calmly watches from the centre, catching the rush of it against his skin, but detached. And all of it – the whole fucking ridiculous chaotic tumble – focussing down on this one still spot he’s occupying.
The bus goes up over the brow of a hill and then settles into the journey proper – the between spaces. Left and right, he can see across rolling farmland. Fields and hedgerows and woods unfurling off into the distance. A lake with a few anglers’ tents pitched around it. A rooftop here and there. A tractor moving along the ridge of a hill – birds tumbling behind like tiny kites being dragged against a feeble wind. The play of the light. The story-book colours and textures. The sun and the sky and the day. This day. These forces working in just this moment, for him – the only person here in this space to witness it. He feels a rare sense of privilege about it. This world of his. He feels like he wants to get off and start walking across the fields, going where the will takes him. Leaving everything else behind. Losing himself entirely. Becoming someone else. Plenty have done it and survived – just dropped out. Disappeared. Who was there to miss him anyway? No close family. No wife or kids. A few friends, but no one very special. The people at work… if, indeed, there was still work to go back to. If they still wanted him. In some ways, he hoped they didn’t. Maybe they could give him that extra push, set him on his way. One change, all change. Why not? What was life for, anyway? What better place to start it all again than from here. The ground on which the ladder’s standing. Absolute zero. It strikes him that there’s two ideal conditions in life. Either you have so much money that it’s never a problem again. Or you have none at all. It’s the stuff in between that’s difficult to handle, that makes it all so fucking complicated and hard to figure. If you’ve got nothing, then you’ve nothing to lose.
He takes some more beer down, then rests the can on the seat between his legs. The sun is hot and bright through the glass and when he closes his eyes it shows orange through the lids. Shut it all out, now. Comfortable. A gentle rocking – like in a cradle, or a hammock on a breezy day. He could go down to the beach when he gets back. Take a towel, another beer, his pump-up dinghy. Drift out and lie there listening to the sea lap around him. Dangle his feet in. Pretend he’s anywhere, doing what he’d do if he had all the money in the world. All the money in the fucking world. And all the time was his…
He jerks forward suddenly as the bus turns down a slip road and onto the bypass. Somehow, ten minutes have disappeared. Not far now. Just this short stretch of A road, then off at the Hunters Bay turn, up and across the flyover and along past the park towards the town and the coast. Four stops. Still most of the can left, so he takes down a long draft, then another. Half a mile ahead or so, the footbridge comes into view. He sees someone standing on it, this side, looking down at the carriageway – just a toy figure at this distance. Daft sod. Inhaling all that shit from the passing traffic. Nothing better to do. He can’t see how life could ever get that dull. As the bus gets nearer, picking up speed on the downward gradient, he sees that this person has their arms outstretched along the railings – almost a parody of the crucified Christ. A woman, something tells him, though it’s difficult to see for sure yet – looking ahead at the approaching traffic. Maybe not so far apart, though, he thinks. Another detached soul. Another perspective on the craziness of it – the dash from one place to the next. The never stopping. The headlong rush.
And suddenly he’s drawn by the urge to communicate – to acknowledge the association. The understanding. The complicity. He stands and makes his way stumblingly to the front of the bus, holding his thumb over the tab-hole of the can to stop it from slopping out. Two lanes of traffic ahead, a skip lorry in front of the bus. Through the trees to the right, the sun sparkling on the sea. Still not close enough, but he’s sure now it’s a woman – standing directly over the lane the bus is on, the skip lorry there, a line of traffic ahead of that, just passing under. Twenty seconds apart. He sits in the seat by the periscope glass and tilts the rest of the can down his throat. Who cares if the driver can see? Worst she can do is turf him off. From the corner of his eye, he sees the advert on the roof curve above him. A benefit fraud hotline number. A woman standing at a curtain, phone to her ear. No ifs. No buts.
He slams forward against the window as the bus brakes suddenly, cracking his head, blue sparks shooting across his vision, beer spraying down his shirt as the can flies from his hand and clatters across the floor. Screams from downstairs. Things falling. People falling. The back of the bus stepping out slightly, but maintaining the line. His legs go from under him and he falls to the floor bang on his arse, sprawled between the two rows of seats, facing the back. Too quick to think about it. Just the crack on his head and the falling.
What the fucking Christ…?
The bus stops at last and his head jerks forward. People still screaming downstairs, shouting, stuff rolling everywhere, cars skidding all around, the stink of beer in his nostrils. He puts his hand to his forehead and sees a smudge of blood on the palm. His knee hurts, too. The can rolls towards the stairs and stops just at the edge. He pulls himself back up onto the seat. He sees the skip lorry slewed across towards the inside lane, the bus no more that a body’s-length from it. The traffic further ahead still moving. The cars on the other side slowing, the drivers looking across. The sea shining there, through the trees. Ahead and above, the footbridge stretching over the road like a pier. Empty. As if no one was ever there.
Behind him, the can goes over the edge and clatters down the stairs.