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.