I’m in a hospital waiting room, squinting against the poisonous iridescence of the 30,000 watt strip light which illuminates this purgatory and sears itself painfully in to my hungover brain. There’s the usual accoutrements; uncomfortable plastic chairs, out of date magazines, slumping elderly people and a strange sort of play area designed to amuse small children, arranged there by people who presumably have never had, or indeed been, a child.
I approach the reception desk.
‘Name?’ The crinkled old receptionist asks without actually deigning to look up.
‘David Bainbridge’ I sigh wearily before adding, for no reason whatsoever. ‘I’ve got an appointment.’
The crone looks up at this, probably wondering, as I am now, whether or not anyone has ever strolled in to the oncology department purely on a random impulse.
‘Ah yes Mr Bainbridge – your appointment was actually at 10.15 so we’ll have to see if the consultant is prepared to see you.’
It is 10.22am. I have been here more times than I care to count and have never had to wait less than 30 minutes past my appointment time but clearly, I am holding them up.
‘I see – and how long will I have to wait for a decision?’
‘Just take a seat.’
I sit down. There’s a woman opposite me, early forties probably, quite attractive. A child which I presume belongs to her is sitting on the floor near her feet, playing with an abacus.
She glances furtively at me with a pained expression. It looks as though there’s something terrible happening to her, death most likely, but the look on her face – it’s something else. It’s a look I know very well as the the look of someone who has something bad to apologise for – it is, quite unmistakably, guilt.
‘How old?’ I ask her, snatching at any question I can in order to validate the awkward fact that our eyes have met.
’41’ she replies.
I was obviously referring to the brat but that settles the matter; she is definitely dying. What’s she got to feel bad about? It’s the weight of our relationships, the unbearable burden of those who we care for and who in turn cling to us with cloying, desperate hands. Why can’t we bear to leave them? Why do we need to feel so bad about our own mortality?
‘You stay strong.’ I say to her in a voice which I have deemed to be both empathetic and slightly enigmatic but which, when I hear it out loud, is just plain creepy. She winces slightly, visibly recoils and we both settle back in to comfortably ignoring one another.
None of this is doing anything to improve the state of my hangover.
Last night was a family dinner. Me, my ex-wife, her live-in lover of the last 14 years which basically makes him step-dad elect, and my son and daughter who have recently transitioned from actively despising me in to a rather cold state of indifference.
I had planned on introducing them to Linda but there’s just never a good time and last night would’ve been out of the question.
About half way through the meal, just as I was wondering why on earth I’d been summoned to a vegetarian restaurant on a Tuesday night my eldest, Rebecca, announces that she is getting married. Her fiancé Richard, an irksome little toad who has never shown me even a modicum of respect was not present at the meal which made me think that this news was not, in fact, new. They’d no doubt already done the big announcement previously together. I was just the after thought – this dreary get together was just something they all had to endure out of politeness. They’d long since toasted with champagne and nibbles, ex-wife Helen and super step-dad Iain, headstrong daughter Rebecca and wayward stoner son Jamie all congregated around the centre island in a bright and warm kitchen which used to be mine.
I did my best to play my part and feign an approximation of what could reasonably be described as ‘happy.’ The only thing going through my mind was how am I ever going to introduce them to Linda now?
So I just decided to get drunk. I have a horrible memory of berating the poor bewildered waiter for not knowing what a martini was. Then snapping at him to just ‘bring me a glass of the coldest white wine you have, as long as it’s not Chardonnay.’ Then I tried to order a steak, proclaiming that since all normal restaurants offer at least one vegetarian option, they were in fact discriminating against me as a carnivore. My memory is hazy and I think it all ended badly. I have a very bad feeling I left a voicemail on Helen’s phone, but what?
‘Mr Bainbridge?’ the receptionist’s voice slaps me out of my profitless reverie. ‘Doctor Qureshi will see you now.’
‘Oh how kind’ I say as I stand up and stride out of the waiting room, weighing up the idea of ruffling the kid’s hair as I walk by but deciding against it.
Once inside doctor Qureshi’s office he greets me with his usual warmly sombre expression and extends to me his soft, dry, brown hand. His fingernails are always rather disturbingly long although meticulously clean and trimmed.
‘Mr Bainbridge, please take a seat. How are you?’
‘Fine, I suppose.’
‘Any nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath since we last met?’
‘Yes, although I think that’s just the cheap Chardonnay which was forced on me last night.’
Jokes. Always the jokes.
‘I see. Well look I’ll come straight to the point we’ve had the results back and the tumour…’
‘Call her Linda.’
‘She has a name. Please address her as Linda.’
He looks worried. I’m sure that if he had some sort of emergency button under his desk with which to summon the men in the white coats then he would be discreetly hammering it right now.
‘Ok…Linda has slightly increased in size. It…she is still what we would describe as a peripheral carcinoma and there does not appear to be any metastases present. I would strongly recommend that we discuss treatment options with a view to proceeding straight away.’
I weigh this up for a second. It’s basically the news I was expecting, and I’m prepared for it. All of this has gone on long enough. I’ve been convinced for a long time that the Universe will let me know when it’s about time to check out. I’m amazed it’s taken so long.
‘Let me tell you a story doctor.’ He looks very worried but I continue nevertheless.
‘When I was about 10 years old my elder brother Timothy told me about a man who lived in our town who died in a car crash. I don’t recall any of the specific details except that when the crash happened he had his dog in the car with him. I think when Timothy told me the story it was a Jack Russell or something but anyway, the crash was a bad one. So bad in fact that both man and dog were completely pulverised by the impact. When the ambulance came to literally scrape them off the road they had no way of telling which bits were the driver and which were the Jack Russell, so they just shoved them all in to the same bag together. There was nothing else they could do. So the story goes that the driver came back as a ghost; half man and half dog. Some sort of grotesque mashed up version of both creatures all bloody and torn up from the crash. Ribcage exposed, guts all hanging out, body and head of a man but with doggy facial features so big ears, tufts of hair and whiskers, a wet nose and of course a big slobbery dog tongue and sharp pointed teeth. Timothy told me to watch out because when I was asleep at night Dog-Face Malone was going to creep in to my room and wake me up by licking and slavering all over my face. Then he’d start to bite and scratch at me, trying to tear me up just like him. It was absolutely terrifying to be honest but you see where I’m going with this?
‘Nothing is ever really created or destroyed doctor. Matter can only ever be transferred from one form to another. It’s the first law of thermodynamics. Nothing is permanent, not you, not me and not anything in this world. It’s all just transient. We’re all just random collections of atoms floating around in space and sooner or later we all end up as a load of dog and human parts all smooshed up together in a big bag.’
‘Mr Bainbridge it’s perfectly normal in your position to feel overwhelmed. If you like I can refer you to…’
‘No thanks doctor. I appreciate it I really do but that’s it for me.
‘May I suggest you just take a little bit of time to think about your treatment options?’
‘You can think about your options all you like. I’m off. Maybe that doesn’t fit with your perfectly ordered view of the universe. Beads all neatly aligned on the abacus but I embrace the chaos because baby, I’m an anarchist.’
And with that I get up and stride confidently out of the good doctor’s office. Straight in to the void.
‘Mr Bainbridge?’ I stop at the door but I don’t turn around.
‘What is it doctor?’
‘You left your coat on the back of the chair.’
‘Oh. Thanks I do need that, it’s rather chilly outside, unseasonably so for this time of year.’ I pick it up. Then walk back out in to the (rather chilly) void.
Later that night I’ve had a bit to drink, rather a lot actually if truth be told. I thought I knew exactly where I was going with all of this. I thought that Linda and I had forged a tacit agreement, that our destinies were now inextricably linked and that we would walk hand in hand in to the sunset with one another. Trouble is now it’s more like I’m wandering in the gloaming. Unsure of which way to turn, trapped in the woods.
It’s this wedding business that’s really thrown me. I had long since given up on the notion of ever having a proper relationship with my kids. It’s mostly my fault. I say mostly because a lot of the time it strikes me that they are lazy, cynical, horrendously entitled little fuckers. They think the whole world, and indeed their parents owe them some sort of massive favour. I did everything I was supposed to do. For years I took good care of Helen, albeit whilst maintaining a dysfunctional relationship with my own personal demons and proclivities along the way but nevertheless, I gave her everything. Then the kids came along and somehow everything just ended for me. My whole life just became about them. Dreary Saturdays spent at the park when we used to be in the pub. Standing on the sidelines of Sunday morning football games where Jamie was usually an unused substitute. Trying to be encouraging towards him, trying to make the best of it even though he reminded me so viscerally of myself. I hated having to watch him fail.
Then one day it all came to an end. It was Helen, incredibly who’d been unfaithful to me. Actually truth be told she was the only one of us who had the strength of character to actually own up to it and I certainly never let her forget that she was the one who’d ended things, even though her and Iain were still together to this day.
I moved away, tried to take back the life I thought I was owed. I thought I could maintain things with the kids from long distance but it didn’t really work out. Little by little I missed every major life event they ever had during their formative teenage years, which passed in an instant while I was somehow attempting to recapture my own. I’d eventually given up on my new life and returned to the area full time following some ‘unpleasantness’ at work. Trouble was now my children were adults. Bitter, twisted, fucked up adults who had their own problems to deal with and for who I had now become merely an irrelevance. And while all that was happening, I’d got old.
I’d thought about killing myself on and off for years, but now it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like the time. Except this wedding. A man was supposed to walk his daughter down the aisle so maybe I should just see that one out? Even though I can’t stand Richard the little shit and Rebecca is just as likely to ask Iain to walk her down the aisle out of spite but maybe, just maybe I could do it. Just…
‘David?’ That’s Helen, she’s come round and is now in the process of tidying my kitchen with the silent intensity of a trained assassin. In her mind there is no problem which cannot be remedied by having a nice, tidy kitchen. Typical Helen.
‘What?’ I slur back like a taciturn teenager.
‘I said do you want tea?’
‘No. I just want to be left alone to die.’
‘Well you obviously don’t or you wouldn’t have left me that stupid message would you?’
The cry for help. I knew I was drunk the other night but this is a turn up even for me. Apparently I’d left Helen a voicemail saying that I was going to end it all. Telling her to tell the kids I was sorry.
‘I meant it.’
‘Well you clearly didn’t because it’s a day later and here you still are, moaning as usual.’
‘Well it’s a good job isn’t it because you would’ve been too late to stop me wouldn’t you?’
‘I’m not good at checking voicemails David. I was in bed when you left it and today I’ve been paying tennis.’
God I hate that Helen’s always right. So grown up, so logical. I’ve told her all about Linda of course, drunkenly blurted it all out and what does she do? Tidy up and make tea. I could be swinging from a noose or lying in a bathtub full of my own blood and she’d still be rearranging my crockery in the most efficient and space-saving manner. And yet I need her here. She’s the only way I can relate to the real world. She’s my anchor, my fulcrum,always has been.
‘Now look.’ Helen begins in her perfectly English matter-of-fact way. ‘About this tumour…’
‘Whatever David, have you had a second opinion? Have you even seen a proper consultant?’
‘David that’s a French cookery term.’
‘You’re a French cookery term.’
‘Monte au beurre as you very well know means to thicken with butter.’
‘You’re thick and with butter.’ I giggle to myself at that one and spill my glass of Malbec down my shirt.
‘Oh for goodness sake David come along.’ Helen gets a wet cloth from the sink and comes over to me, begins dabbing at jumper with it. She’s so close to me and I think about how she doesn’t seem to have aged. She’s the same as she always was, maybe even more bossy if possible but no different. Maybe that’s because we’ve aged together. Travelling in perfect parallel through time as the Universe changes everything around us, except us.
She looks up at me with those big grey eyes and I can’t help but notice the smooth curvature of her neck. She looks back at me and holds my gaze…
‘Stop leering at me David you’re making me uncomfortable. Now look. You and I are going to go and see a proper specialist and look at your treatment options. We’re going to get through this sensibly.’
‘You can do what you like but I’m not going. Baby, I’m an anarchist.’
‘No you’re not you’re a retired financial consultant.’
‘I’m on a leave of absence.’
‘An enforced leave of absence.’
‘Whatever, as usual you have to be right. It makes no difference. We’re all just going to end up as atoms all squashed together in a bag like Dog-Face Malone anyway.’
‘What on earth are you babbling about?’
‘Nothing is ever really created or destroyed. We’re all just bits of random matter waiting to be reformed in to something else so nothing means anything.’
‘If you say so.’
‘It’s the first law of thermodynamics. I think.’
‘You know it is. And shall I tell you why? You listened to Jamie going on about it at length at Rebecca’s birthday party a couple of years ago, for which you arrived late and behaved terribly but you were there and you obviously do remember it so stop acting like nothing means anything and start taking some responsibility.’
‘How dare you.’ Although she is right.
‘The fact is it suits you to act like you don’t care about anything and that no one cares about you. It’s easier for you.’
‘Well clearly you’re so very perfect and make a point of listening intently to everything and being Mrs-fucking-perfect all the time.’
‘I didn’t say I was interested David, the only reason he wouldn’t shut up about it was because he was so incredibly high and thought we hadn’t noticed.’
We both begin to laugh.
‘Yeah he is terrible at hiding it.’
‘He is. Right so stop wallowing and start facing up to reality please, starting tomorrow, agreed?’
‘Yes I suppose so, you are always right that is of course the foundation on which our marital points system rests.’
‘We are no longer married.’
‘Oh we’ll always be married. It’s like being Wimbledon champion, they can’t take it away from you. You’re forever a Wimbledon champion.’
‘Strangely enough David that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.’
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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