No, I don’t think he is alright you know, limbs lying awkward like that, left leg splayed out like he’s sleeping, his right ankle up by his buttocks, right knee pointing inward like he needs to wee. His left arm’s up and over his face, but I think he’s still breathing. It’s hard to tell, really, from all the way up here. You might’ve expected him to have gotten up by now, brushed himself down and then leant his shoulders back to see me up here, to have pointed, maybe shook his fist, shouted something about me going down there to apologise properly or face some sort of pasting. But down there now, with his right arm wrapped under him where he’s fallen on it, sort of pulling his head round with it, onto the floor, a bit, he don’t look like he’s going to be having a go at anyone, not for a while.
In Brian’s office and he’s sat there at his desk, the big lapels of his shiny suit glinting in the fluorescent lighting of his office. As I come in he gives me this flat smile like he wishes it wasn’t him saying, ‘Sit down, please, Mr Nolan.’
I knew something was up right then. We’d worked together, I’d worked for him rather, for years and he’d not hardly called me Mr Nolan once.
‘I’m very sorry, Gary. I really am,’ he said, glinty glinty fat lapels.
‘Sorry for what?’ I asked.
‘Er,’ and here he paused for long enough that it seemed he wasn’t sure what the what was, but after shuffling through some papers sat in front of him, he continued, ‘I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.’
‘Let me go? I’m your most experienced member of staff.’
‘That’s just it Gary,’ he said, glinty glint. ‘Voluntary redundancy.’
‘But I don’t want to be made redundant.’
‘Well, no. But you’re the only member of staff who’s been here long enough to be eligible to take it.’ Here he stares at me, lapels suddenly fallen dull, sad smile still firmly in place.
‘But I don’t want to.’
‘Hmmm, yes. But, well, I’m afraid I have to make efficiency savings. That’s what they’re called. Which means someone, I’m afraid, has to go. Which means you, I’m afraid.’
‘So, you’re sacking me?’
‘We’d prefer not to call it that.’
I sit, stunned. Fifteen long years of putting up with whatever inane bullshit Brian here saw fit to shove my way. And now this.
‘Hang on, you’ve been here just as long as me. Why aren’t you out?’
‘I have to make the decisions Gary.’
His eyes aren’t open are they? When people lie there not moving with their eyes open in films and that, it generally means they’ve gone and snuffed it. But if his eyes are closed it’ll mean he’s unconscious and I’m not sure that’s too healthy either. It certainly isn’t too good for you to be lying around on the street, I can tell you. There might be blood leaking all over the inside of his brain like a squashed pack of raspberries at the bottom of a shopping bag. Or he might have his neck cracked in two or more places, like a pile of tiles dropped on a bathroom floor. Or, worse, both. I suppose it depends on how hard, and at what angle, the thing hit him.
And that was that. I was done for, going back to my desk to pack my things, everyone giving me that same sad smile, me putting what constituted my ‘personal items’, that holiday snap of me and Julie, my fluffy toy frog that went on my terminal, the three cards I’d been given on my birthday the week before, into a little cardboard box and carrying them to the exit. A drizzly rain had just started to spit from the sky as I walked to the car and tried to unlock the boot without putting the box down. I was all too aware of the glum stares of my ex-colleagues through the plate glass floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the front of the office as I tried once, twice, three times before my trusty Nissan Micra spluttered to life. I drove round the corner, the rain increasing in intensity with every swipe of my car’s one working wiper, onto the high street to the job centre, where I tried to make an appointment only for a man half my age to explain to me in his unironed shirt and obvious boredom that I’d have to go away and start a claim online. When I sat in the now roaring downpour, having already failed to get my car to start again, my forehead began to hurt as I hit it again and again and again against the steering wheel.
Someone, with a dog, has stopped and is standing over him. If he was dead dead, they’d probably be a bit panicked, wouldn’t they? They seem calm enough. Even letting their terrier sniff his face. He leans down and gently nudges at him, trying to wake him up. Nothing doing. Now he’s looking up and down the street, to see if anyone else’s seen. Probably thinking he can walk away now, if no one has. No, that’s not fair. Probably just wants to get someone else’s input, a second opinion if you like. No one likes having to make decisions all by themselves, we all work better as part of a team. We all want to be able to fall back upon the wisdom of the tribe when trouble strikes.
I’d always thought of myself as a provider, the one striding out onto the great plains of the world and bringing back the big kill, the one my missus, Julie, could rely on to sail off over the horizon of the day and harpoon the bigger fishes, hoist up the nets of plenty, the one who would bend over the big spade of life to dig up the turnip of whatever it was we might be needing. Obviously the both of us worked full time. The rents round here don’t allow for single incomes, not unless they’re significantly higher than what I could pull in. And because we wanted enough left over to be able to enjoy ourselves, Julie had a weekend job as well. But it wasn’t as if she could work three jobs. That wouldn’t be fair. It seemed though, that as the weeks began to stretch into months, there was precious little call for a man of my age and experience. Mates said they’d help, keep an eye out, give me the nod if they spotted anything suitable. And I was back up and down the job centre every day, and the library, checking things on them web jobsites, but there was nothing doing, nothing I’d be willing to do for more than a week anyway.
The dog, who I reckon’s called Rex, don’t ask me why, starts to cock his leg above the guy lying prone on the pavement, and his owner pulls him back. Nothing as troubling as having someone else’s life in your hands, popping out for a pint of milk or to take Rex or whatever out for a quick piss and there you are, master of a stranger’s fate. I had a dog, once: Baxter. I used to love taking him for walks, breathing the fresh air, not worrying about where you were going or where you had to get to. Someone else has stopped now, a younger chap. The two of them talking over what to do next. See, always easier to share a problem, things never seem so difficult once you’ve got another ear to sound off into. I start to think about maybe popping my head back in. I’m sure the two of them can take care of it. The one without the dog, the one that’s just turned up, is making a phone call. That’s a good sign.
When I started the search, I brushed up proper, put a bit of effort in, but as the days dragged by I couldn’t see the point in not being comfy, my tracksuit usually making it through the week in the same state I was, neither of us needing too much of a clean. Julie would say things, things that would’ve doubtless seemed perfectly fine once upon a time but now felt like they had a kick, a sting on the end of them. Like it was my fault I’d been laid off, like it was my fault I couldn’t find anything else. And I’d snap back. Then we’d row and I’d grab Baxter’s lead, storm out, end up down the King Eddie, ’specially if it was cold. It was lucky they let dogs in.
There’s a smallish crowd round him now, an old dear with her tartan shopping trolley, another older guy who seems to know the one with the terrier, a young woman with a buggy who’s trying to stop her older one from jumping on the poor feller’s head. I think they’re discussing what to do next, I hope so anyway. I wouldn’t walk past. I’m not sure many would. Though you might if you reckoned it’d cause you bother in the longer term. People are happy to give you their spare change, or a sandwich, but to stop and spend time talking to you, really sharing your problems, that’s another matter. Fair enough though isn’t it? We’ve all got our own problems, weighing on our backs like sacks full of unwanted presents, like Santas of a Christmas nobody wants. We’ve all got too much on our plates to want to go finishing anyone else’s leavings. A cloud passes in front of the sun and in the change of light the small crowd seem smaller, more fragile. A few kids ride their bikes round the grass by the path. The bloke’s terrier sticks its nose out at a squirrel that comes halfway down a nearby tree. Like any other day really.
‘Trev’, I nodded, taking my position at the bar. ‘Nogsie.’
‘Alright fella?’ Nogsie replied. ‘Ahs tricks?’
‘Not too good, mate.’
‘’er indoors doin yer swede in ay?’
‘Something like that,’ I said ordering a pint. ‘What you boys having?’
I didn’t want to be here, at the pub, not really, but it started to seem like every time I opened my mouth at home the wrong thing would come out, and Julie would ram it back up there like it was her duty to. Nogsie and Trev never had a go at me, why would they? I could afford to buy drinks with my severance. But, as time began to pour out of the beer tap of life and spill away into the drip tray of history, finding the cash to shove behind the bar began to get harder. It was the same story for Nogsie and Trev. But don’t get me wrong. I’m a respectable person. I wouldn’t be caught dead drinking on the street like some sort of wino.
A young lady’s come along, bending down by his head. Perhaps she’s a nurse. She seems nice. And professional. If you can tell professionality from the back of someone’s head. She’s doing things to him at any rate, checking his pulse, making sure nothing’s broken I suppose.
‘Get that down you,’ Trev said, handing me a bottle of vodka.
I must’ve had fallen asleep again, on the bench by the church on the High Street. Nogsie was curled up at the end, which explained why my feet hadn’t got too cold. Not that we were totally destitute, a horse done well here, a lucky scratch card there, the regular giros, me selling my car. I suppose we were trying to bring as much fun into our lives as we could. The three of us sitting on that bench, our bench, chewing the fat, putting the world to rights. It was us against the world. Certainly felt like it. And then I went home one day, for a shower or something, and Julie had gone. Packed her stuff and cleaned out. Not even a note, much less a bye your leave. Even took the dog. I was heartbroken. I think I realised then just how much she meant to me, how much she completed me, how much her being there, at home, made me feel like one day I might pull through, that I had something worth pulling through for. Still, it did mean me and the boys wouldn’t have to sit on that freezing bloody bench any longer. So it was all back to mine. Like the three musketeers. Only without any of the things that made the musketeers the musketeers. Except perhaps the drinking. Oh, the times we had! Not that I remember much of them, and that was only, of course, until I was evicted. Which didn’t take all that long as it happens. Came quicker than expected actually. Not that I was expecting it. I’d given up opening post some time before, no point reading your own bad news was the way I saw it, so the bailiff’s banging on the door came as a bit of a shock. Not as much of a shock as it was to poor Nogsie, it was him they woke up! Bundled the three of us onto the pavement. Thank you very much. Turned out that Trev had a wife and three kids, three kids! so I couldn’t go there. And when he wasn’t at mine, Nogsie stayed with his elderly mother, so I couldn’t go there either.
Now there seems to be a general stir, a feeling of movement, the old dear with the trolley’s moving off. Which I’m going to take as a good sign. If it’s boring enough to walk away from it can’t be all that serious can it? Oop, and there goes the young mum too. Definitely okay then. Phew. He’s been laid out down there for at least half an hour, cold, on the concrete like that. Her little’uns are probably getting hungry, and it’s not like anything’s actually happening.
I went for help myself, eventually. I had to. Especially when the Council’s homelessness team found me wrapped in a bin liner round the back of the Tesco Metro. But it was a good idea. Managed to get me a residential placement, ‘the dryer’ as we called it, eleven men and four women like me all half wishing we could pack it in and drown ourselves in a bottle of something. That was where I met Morwenna.
‘Mr Nolan, please come in. It’s good to see you again’
She was a vision, as ever, her shiny brown hair tied up on top of her head.
Her red legwarmers like something out of a Jane Fonda.
Her smile like she wasn’t going to tell me I was a piece of shit.
‘How have you been getting on this week?’
‘Er, okay, I, er, I think’ I always went stuttery during our sessions, like I was a young man again, all tongue-tied and shy.
‘That’s good.’ She smiled, cocked her head in a way that showed she really was interested. ‘What would you like to talk about in today’s session?’
There we go, the other younger woman, the nurse until I know better, has covered him with her jacket. He can’t be dead then. She’d have covered his face with it if he was. She’s stood back up and now’s saying something to the others, definitely taking charge. That’s what you need. In an emergency. Someone to say what has to be done, who has to do it and when it’s got to be done by. A leader. Trouble with that though is as soon as you’ve got a leader everyone else slacks off, thinks it’s no longer their responsibility, hopes that whoever’s set themselves up as head honcho’s also gone and reserved their place as the fall guy. People. I’d sigh if it weren’t so funny. There’s no helping them.
I could tell her anything, everything. And it felt good to get it out. How I felt that I hadn’t put my foot down properly about leaving my job, that I shouldn’t have just given up so easily. How I felt guilty about my failing to find anything else, my worries that I really was past it, really was good for nothing but a slow slide to the grave. How I’d felt I’d failed: at being a provider, at being a worthwhile partner to Julie, at being a man. How it’d turned out that shitty job was like a part of my identity, a part of who I thought I was, partly. I started to see how maybe, when things had turned against me, I’d lashed out, blamed other people, especially Julie, for what was happening, and how, by not respecting those closest to me, I hadn’t been able to respect myself once any sort of crunch came. Not that it was all my fault, we agreed that, but how I’d reacted to the situation? that was something I had to take responsibility for.
They still haven’t moved him. Or my meditation cushion. The both of them there on the pavement. They’ve put him in the recovery position now though. He seems a lot better for it. I think I can hear a siren too, so that’s ok. That’s what I love about the city, you’re never too far from anyone else, never too alone.
Ah Morwenna, Morwenna.
With those leg warmers and her sunglasses in her hair she could’ve passed for my daughter. If I’d had kids. I don’t reckon you could get that good at listening to people as a youngster though, so she must’ve been closer to my age. It was her taught me the breathing techniques and all, told me about the meditation classes at the local Buddhist centre, said I should try going. I wasn’t too sure at first. What if I wasn’t any good at it? What if I failed again? But I thought, you know what? Why not? I felt I needed to practice first though, on my own, so I wouldn’t look a tit sitting all wrong or something. Got myself a nice bright red meditation cushion online, the same shade as Morwenna’s leg warmers, like a kind of tribute. A proper weighty thing and all, though not too comfy at first. Hurt my knees, then my bum, then my ankles. But I persevered. I thought, You know what Gary, it’s time you bucked things up a bit. Look at the state of yourself, I thought. And I did it. Well, a bit. You know, bit by bit, slowly slowly catchy monkey and all that.
Imagine if you were in that poor chap’s condition down some country lane? Nothing but the odd scarecrow to watch over you, make sure you were still breathing? You’d be stuck in some muddy ditch, literally until the cows came home. And who knows when that might be? Apart from the farmer. And he’d be too busy with his milking and what not to bother with you, I don’t doubt. Granted, you’re probably less likely to be struck by a meditation cushion dropped from a tower block in Strawsville, out in deepest darkest Farmington or wherever, but I’m sure there are just as many dangers out in the countryside to the fragile personages that make up each and every one of us. Just far fewer people around to help you out if you get stuck. Or, as I say, find yourself lying, in a field, unconscious. The guy with the terrier scans the windows up here, spots me still leaning out, rubbernecking. Points at me. Some of the rest of the crowd also crane their necks up at me. I smile, feel almost famous.
I was pretty lucky to get this place. That’s what they said at the housing. Nice big window looking out over the estate. I can sit for hours in the morning watching the pigeons flocking back and forth, the sparrows flitting in the trees. Not too far from the shop. There’s even the canal and a little nature reserve just down the way. Close, well close-ish, to the train and the bus, so if one of these jobs comes through I’ll be able to get to it easy enough. Things are finally starting to go my way a bit, the dark skies of my recent life just starting to clear.
And it wasn’t really my fault, not really. Just unlucky. Story of my life really. I was brushing the dust off out of the window, just rubbed at it once, twice, maybe bashed it a bit to dislodge a stubborn bit and it slipped out of my hand. It seemed to hang there for a moment, then started this slow twirl downwards through the air, graceful, almost ballerina-like, the full weight of its tiny little beads piling up on top of each other like the way all the tiny little jolts and shocks our lives are made up of pull together to hurtle toward the unsuspecting head of the poor stranger that is all of us, or, more specifically, that poor unfortunate, there, now on the ground, but as he was before, as he sauntered down the road of his experience, perhaps whistling, perhaps admiring the greenness of the summer trees and the way the air felt especially fulsome on this very morning, perhaps enjoying the feeling of how his life seemed to spread ahead of him like an all you can eat buffet. Then bop. Out he goes. Some other numpty’s loose fingers having him come crashing to the floor like so much warm flesh wrapped in laundry.
And I’ve got back in touch with Julie, who replied to my text. Even helped me move in here. Said we could share Baxter again, for walks and that, if I liked, which was nice. She’s with some Simon geezer now. She seems happy, which is also good. A bit more solid than me, that Simon, if I’m honest, though perhaps a bit more boring. One of those steady-job types. You know, a tie even when he’s not at the office, trousers ironed with a straight crease in. Not that different from who I used to be, even got a mug a bit like mine. The kind of face you’d pass by in a crowd but could be sure it’d be waiting for you at home when you got there, if that makes sense. The kind of face that says, you can rely on me, I might not be perfect but I’ll try not to balls this up too badly, and if I do, I’ll put my hands up, face whatever the consequences is.
Two policemen have turned up, along with the ambulance workers who’re putting one of those oxygen masks on him. And a drip. I’m sure he’ll be fine now he’s being looked after. The chap with the terrier points up at me, the two policemen gaze up too. I give them a wave.
Jack Houston is a writer and public-library worker from London. His poetry has been shortlisted for the Basil Bunting and Keats-Shelley Prizes, and his short fiction for the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. He lives in Hackney with his partner, their three children, one lonely goldfish and a small colony of stick insects. He is currently working on his first collection of short stories and his debut pamphlet of poems The Fabulanarchist Luxury Uprising is due from The Emma Press in 2022.
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