No End To Time

We were boys back then, when days were longer.

We were stronger, too, in body and in mind. In time

perhaps we would weaken and soften, but in the now of then,

no end was in our mind, not yours, not mine,

there was no end to time.

We were hard and proud, eager, loud,

happy, stupid, drunk on beer and being young,

though we did not know then

just what that meant.

It meant being more alive

than ever we would be again.

Moving on from booze and song,

we fell apart and into what was yet to come.

The moment we began to think of others

our youth began to leave us.

Our selfish armour pierced by the lance of love

and the prick of its thorny crown, we found

there was more than just our self to centre on.

From the moment after being young,

little leavings of ourselves fell all around us,

dribbles and trickles of what had been

invincible lay in mortal ruins at our feet.

We die in increments.

What you had been was gone too soon,

crashed out in a welter of steel

and a sixteen-wheeler that you never passed

on a road coming back from your future.

Your mortality ruined me, my friend.

I had not yet learned to live.

The Joy Of Being

Wind smudged rain clouds

Smear the sky

Far more than fifty

Shades of grey.

The ghost of the sun

Glowers behind them

Awaiting apparition.

Rainfall pitter-patter

Drops on chitter-chattering

Children and mothers

And others walking

On leaf-patterned

Streets of autumn gold

And green and red.

The taste of rain is empty

Like it’s smell

Though passing people smell

Of many things

Of who they are

Of good and bad

Of spices and niceness

And sometimes

Of a blighted, dirty life.

Gulls call and crows caw

And the traffic roar

Is made hiss by rain.

Puddles shatter underfoot,

Splatter as I dance in them

Like an old fool.

I can’t dance, never could

But I can feel

I can feel this, all around me,

All the lovely shittiness,

All the ugly prettiness,

All the things we see

And hear and smell

And feel and taste.

All these things bring joy,

The joy of being

A sentient being.

There

This short story was long-listed for the Sheffield Author’s Short Story Competition 2019.

“What a pillock.”

The two boys in the seat in front of him turned to look at him. John turned to look through the window, his face burning at missing his stop and speaking his thoughts out loud. The bus had just turned on to London Road. He pressed the button and got off, chuntering at himself like a lost-it boy.

On the pavement, John paused and looked around. A few people were walking, cars were flowing up and down the road. He’d not been down here for a long time, years, perhaps, but it seemed to look about the same as it ever had. And then he looked again. Something wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t able to focus properly. It was as though he was looking at two photographs of the same thing, one overlaid on the other. That supermarket, Sainsbury’s. That had been a nightclub, hadn’t it? The buildings opposite, red brick buildings, when did they get built? Hadn’t that one been a car showroom? And the pub across the road, the one that was busy as buggery every weekend, where was that? What had happened to that?

Looking along the road, a stream of memories of people and past events came at John in a sudden flood. Things he’d done, things his friends had done, things they’d done together. The pressure of these remembrances became overwhelming. He felt an obligation to recall them, clearly and accurately, and at the same time an urge to let them go, to discard them. He began to feel dizzy, drunk on thinking. Deciding to head for the underpass that ran beneath the ring road, still lost in his thoughts, he set off across a pedestrian crossing before the lights had changed and got a brash blare from a lorry driver for his sin. John waved an insincere apology and walked on, down the steps of the underpass, past a homeless pile of clothes waiting for their owner to return. That wasn’t right, either.

The two young lads sitting in the seat in front of his on the bus had been excited about a football match tomorrow. They didn’t look like they were even teenagers yet. John had begun remembering being their age and as excited as they were about football. There had been a pinging sound. Both boys had stopped talking and taken out their phones and thumbed them mercilessly. John had zoned out. He had carried on thinking about when he was a boy. It had made him feel happy. Too happy. That was how he’d missed his stop. Perhaps that was what had started it; the remembering.

He walked around the monstrous Moorfoot building and came to the bottom of the Moor. John crossed the bus lane and walked past an isolated kiosk and stopped. Looking up the Moor, he again felt the sense of something not being right. That duality settled over the scene once more. He was seeing what he was looking at but looking through his memory. The Moor, a carved stone canyon of neat, straight, sheer facades ran away up the slight incline in front of him. A pedestrianised space, John saw cars on either side: a Ford Cortina; a Hillman Imp; old vehicles from so long ago that they had probably been scrapped and recycled and scrapped again by now. He rubbed his eyes. At the top of the hill he could see the Town Hall. John remembered that was supposed to meet his wife there at lunch time. He began walking again, quickly.

He passed Atkinsons and felt comforted and suspicious that it was as it had always been, doubting his memory. John had intended to call in at the Moor Market to pick up a Wateralls’ pork pie for tea but he just looked at the worked expanses of wood that framed the market and kept going. As he moved through the thin crowds of people, images flickered through his mind like shutter stock: Curtess shoes; Blaskeys; BHS; Debenhams. He was trying to remember what had been there before but seeing things as they were now at the same time. Big, bold, clinical buildings paraded on either side of him, bright stone and clean lines. Nothing has detail any more, he thought, and wondered why. He stopped.

“I’m losing it,” he said.

A young girl walking towards John heard him speak to himself and subtly changed her direction, taking a course further from him. Some other day he might have smiled at this, at the idea that he’d become the odd bloke in the street. It wasn’t funny today, though. Not funny at all.

I’ve already lost it, he thought, deciding against speech. I’ve lost the detail of my life. Why did it go? How did I lose it? A terrifying understanding came to him, and he felt the danger of public tears. John swore quietly at himself, and started walking again, as quickly as before, as though he were hurrying from something.

The top half of the Moor and Pinstone Street passed by in a blur. He couldn’t process the volume of images and thoughts that were storming his mind. Passing the Peace Gardens, the silver jets of the fountains sparkled in the sun and, somewhere unseen, a lone busker was playing a trumpet. The Hovis tune, he thought. The sight and sound settled him a little, and his frantic walking slowed.

He was in front of the town hall now, and he stopped and looked down, panting. Even this was wrong. There were names there. He was walking on stars. John felt faint. He edged towards the Town Hall steps and leaned against a wall. His mind was a glittering palace of lights, flaring and dying. He closed his eyes and wondered if this was how the end begins. He didn’t know. He knew where he was now, though. He was where he was supposed to be. But there, the place he wanted to be, wasn’t there any more.

All My Fault

It’s all my fault

I know it is

The sun didn’t shine

The shoes didn’t fit

I started to whine

It rained for a bit

It’s all my fault

Of course it is

The man was rude

The roads were busy

The crowds were huge

They made me dizzy

It’s all my fault

It has to be

Went looking for presents

And nearly bought cotton

You wanted the satin

Came back with nothing

It’s all my fault

It got to be

There’s no-one else

It must be me

And here’s what stinks

The more I say it

The more I think

I do believe it

Division Street

She was like a balloon that was too pumped up.

She even felt tense, her skin too taut when he accidentally touched her as they passed each other in the small kitchen of the small apartment. He could feel himself stiffening and tightening in response. He noticed that he had unconsciously planted his feet, anchoring himself.

They stood near each other, him at the sink, her at the hob. The only sound was the dull clink of cups in water and meat frying in the pan. The only light came from the grey winter sky outside the window. It seemed to enter the room horizontally. She was staring thin-lipped through the window and he thought the setting suited her. He thought it made her look like an actress from an old film.

He stacked the pots and put the cutlery on the drainer and sat down at the table. He picked up the newspaper and began reading. Something banged behind him and he raised his head. He heard murmured words and another bang and he asked if there was anything he could do. There was a cat-fight sizzle as she poured the passata on top of the meat. She said something else. He said I’m sorry and she said no you’re not. He said no, I mean I didn’t hear what you said.

She walked out of the room.

He stared at the door for a few minutes. The meat sauce had been left on a high heat so he got up and turned it down. He turned on the extractor fan and the overhead light and stirred the sauce and then he boiled the spaghetti and cut some bread. He laid the table and opened the wine and then put out the meal. He opened the door and shouted that it was ready. He waited for a few minutes and then called again.

He sat down and looked at the food. He poured out two glasses of wine and took a big mouthful from one of them. After a couple of minutes he began eating. He finished his meal and his wine and then poured out another glass. He stood up and clasped his hands on top of his head and looked out of the apartment window as the day died outside. He saw people walking along the wet pavements of Division Street. He wondered how they lived.

After a while she came back into the kitchen. She had been crying and her eyes were red. She sat down in front of her food and folded her hands in her lap. He stood up and took her plate and warmed it in the microwave and put it back in front of her. She took a sip of wine and said I’m too upset to eat and he said what are you upset about. She said you know what and he said I don’t. I don’t.

They sat together for a long time without speaking.

Later, when the police asked her why she did it, she just couldn’t find the words.

From Steel Works, a collection of short stories by R. A. Kay set in Sheffield.

Find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07QTCQ896.

Division Street

She was like a balloon that was too pumped up.

She even felt tense, her skin too taut when he accidentally touched her as they passed each other in the small kitchen of the small apartment. He could feel himself stiffening and tightening in response. He noticed that he had unconsciously planted his feet, anchoring himself.

They stood near each other, him at the sink, her at the hob. The only sound was the dull clink of cups in water and meat frying in the pan. The only light came from the grey winter sky outside the window. It seemed to enter the room horizontally. She was staring thin-lipped through the window and he thought the setting suited her. He thought it made her look like an actress from an old film.

He stacked the pots and put the cutlery on the drainer and sat down at the table. He picked up the newspaper and began reading. Something banged behind him and he raised his head. He heard murmured words and another bang and he asked if there was anything he could do. There was a cat-fight sizzle as she poured the passata on top of the meat. She said something else. He said I’m sorry and she said no you’re not. He said no, I mean I didn’t hear what you said.

She walked out of the room.

He stared at the door for a few minutes. The meat sauce had been left on a high heat so he got up and turned it down. He turned on the extractor fan and the overhead light and stirred the sauce and then he boiled the spaghetti and cut some bread. He laid the table and opened the wine and then put out the meal. He opened the door and shouted that it was ready. He waited for a few minutes and then called again.

He sat down and looked at the food. He poured out two glasses of wine and took a big mouthful from one of them. After a couple of minutes he began eating. He finished his meal and his wine and then poured out another glass. He stood up and clasped his hands on top of his head and looked out of the apartment window as the day died outside. He saw people walking along the wet pavements of Division Street. He wondered how they lived.

After a while she came back into the kitchen. She had been crying and her eyes were red. She sat down in front of her food and folded her hands in her lap. He stood up and took her plate and warmed it in the microwave and put it back in front of her. She took a sip of wine and said I’m too upset to eat and he said what are you upset about. She said you know what and he said I don’t. I don’t.

They sat together for a long time without speaking.

Later, when the police asked her why she did it, she just couldn’t find the words.

Lives Around Us

Driving home on a wet Wednesday we passed a boy wearing a black Parka. He  was walking at a good pace. As I watched him he pulled his hood back off his head and ran his hand through his jet black hair a few times to get rid of his sweat. He was in his late teens, perhaps even older. Seeing him ruffle his hair made me wonder why he was in such a rush and where he was rushing to. In seconds, I had a view of his day. I saw him waking in his crumpled bed, alone. I saw him breakfast on toast and coffee, and then run out of his flat, late for university. I saw him doodle during a lecture, and smile at the girl beside him in class. I saw them speak. And then he slotted into now, beside us, rushing home, needing to get washed and changed ready for his date that evening.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

For some reason, I became intensely aware of everyone around us. On either side of the road were houses that were mostly in darkness. Each window that we passed became a portal to other people’s lives. 

We came to four big Edwardian houses that were the homes of three pensioner couples and one widow. The couples each had routines that they had developed and refined over may years, and nothing but death or infirmity would change them. The widow was the happiest of them all. Free at last to do as she pleased, her windows now hung with gaudy golden swagged curtains in place of the timid beige set that pre-dated her widowhood. Her neighbours looked on her with envy and happiness and frustration and fear.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

A block of council flats slid by. A two story building, the upper floors for younger people, the lower for those with mobility issues that precluded the use of stairs. At one of the first floor windows, a bed sheet had been hung in place of curtains. In the flat directly below, lace curtains had been carefully tied back to frame a bunch of flowers standing in an ornate glass vase. A faint tang of weed floated in through the car ventilation. I wondered which residents annoyed the other most, the couple upstairs hiding from the shame of their poverty, or the granny on the ground floor toking her medicinal herb.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

Coming to the turn off for our house, we saw a big crowd of people standing near the corner of the turn. I had never seen anyone waiting here, let alone a group. They were gathered in front of a smart bungalow around a couple of shiny new cars. At first we thought there had been an incident of some kind, a car crash or a fight or even both. Then I noticed that one of the vehicles was a hearse. A pinewood coffin lay in the back. I saw the screw-down fastenings that held it in place. I realised that one of our neighbours had died, and that I didn’t know anything about them and that now I never would.

This was true, though it could not have been.

Sit there. Lie there, in your bed, in your own space. Close your eyes. Who is the person nearest you? What are they doing? What have they done? Don’t think about yourself. Keep thinking about them, and then think about who is nearest to them? What are they going to do, and how, and why? And then think about the people just a little farther away, and how their lives are turning. Can you feel them? Is their life touching yours? And then reach out again. More lives, more things happening to other people, more unknowable purposes and emotions and characters and histories. Step further. The French farmer. The Scottish fisherman. The Belgian teacher. Step further still. The Turkish beggar. The Greek pensioner. The Syrian bureaucrat. The Saudi mechanic. The Japanese banker. The Aboriginal social worker. All lives that we can never know, all happening at the same time as ours. The sheer, crushing weight of it, the busyness of it, the incredible wonder of it. The horror of it.

What lives around us.