WIP: The Flame – Chapter 1

I’d been back in Sheffield less than a month when it happened.

A flash of lightning came just an instant before a God Almighty thunderclap exploded bang above my head. I nearly shat myself. I looked up and as I did a sky full of water began falling on me. I was soaked to the skin in an instant. I was amazed. I’d never seen this sort of weather in England.

I was stranded in the open on Devonshire Street. There was a coffee shop further along on the other side of the road, a protruding cantilever roof along one side providing cover for an outside seating area. I ran across the road, trying but failing to avoid the puddles that had already formed. Everyone around me seemed to have had the same idea and we all headed for the same piece of cover at the same time. The cars parked along the side of the road were almost nose to tail, so people had to funnel through the tight gaps between the vehicles to get to the shelter on the other side. I was still trying to avoid the puddles and so I’d got my head down as I ran, which is why I didn’t see her until I flattened her.

She must have been running towards the same shelter that I was heading for, coming towards it from my left. I’d got my left arm up above my head for some reason, maybe trying to keep the rain out of my eyes, so I didn’t see her coming and just ran straight into her. She bounced off me and onto the back of the car she was trying to pass. It was a Volkswagen Beetle, one of the new models that look like toys. She landed on that curved rear end and slid down and landed on all fours on the pavement in front of me. Trying to avoid landing on her, I jumped into the air and over her and landed on my arse on the pavement beside her.

I didn’t mean to bump into her. I wasn’t trying to get to the shelter before her. If I’d seen her coming I would have been happy to stand aside in the pouring rain and let her scurry through in front of me in order to get there first. I hadn’t seen her though, so now she was sprawled on the pavement in the rain, probably hurt, her smart pastel green jeans marked forever or maybe even ripped. I had to apologise.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to get up. It was then that I realised I’d done something to my back. My wrist hurt, too, and my ankle. “Shit,” I said.

She raised her head. She’d been on all fours up to now so all I’d seen was the top of her head. Except it wasn’t the top of her head. It was a scarf or shawl of some kind that she’d wrapped around her head, a pashmina or something like that. Really bright orange. So I hadn’t seen her head until now, or her face. I hadn’t seen the blonde hair peeping out from under the scarf, the tight natural curls that were starting to drip with rain. I hadn’t seen the tiny ears and the chin with just the suggestion of a cleft, or the red lips that were now stitched together in pain or anger or probably both. I hadn’t seen the bright green eyes, a colour so vivid that it looked fake, like those contact lenses people buy nowadays to make themselves look more interesting or, perhaps more accurately, less dull. I hadn’t seen any of this. Not since I broke her heart, anyway.

Her eyes had always been that dive-in-deep green. Her hair had always been that kinky, curly, strawberry blonde. Her face had always been shaped like a heart. And her mouth had always, always had that slightly protruding upper lip that made it more kissable than any other mouth I had ever known.

I had known that mouth.

“Tuppence,” I said, and “You look great,” I said.

It was. It was Penny. The girl I loved, the one that got away, the wife I should have had. She was on all fours, bedraggled, soaking wet, probably injured and in pain, probably thinking that she looked like shit. I was on my arse, also wet and hurt, on a pavement, just sitting there like it’s a park bench in the sunshine despite the fact that it was pissing down. And the first thing I said to her was that she looked great. Which she did, even like that. Even in a mess like that, she looked absolutely fantastic.

She saw me then, realised who I was. And then something odd happened. For just an instant, so quick that I’m not completely sure it was there, a look flashed across her face. A look that said she was scared. And then it was gone, and in it’s place was a look of confusion and upset and I knew I needed to get up and do something.

“Sorry,” I said again, “I’m sorry, Penny. Let me help you.”

I managed to get off my backside and on to my knees. My back hurt, but it turned out to be nothing serious. Same with my ankle, that turned out to be a mild sprain. It was my right hand that was the problem. I didn’t know it yet but there was a hairline crack of something called the scaphoid bone in my wrist. I reached out to Penny to take hold of her hand to help her to her feet and when she took it, it was like someone was cutting my hand off with a hot scalpel.

“Shit,” I said, again.

I let go of her hand and she fell back to her knees. She looked up at me, on all fours again, me kneeling upright in front of her, mild disbelief on her face. We looked at each other, still on the pavement, still getting soaked, other people coming out of the coffee shop to help us, and then she caught my eye and I caught hers and we smiled and then we laughed. Oh, we bloody laughed. Just like we used to do.

“This is surreal,” I said as we were both helped to our feet by strangers. One of them was a worker from the coffee shop who had seen our mishap. He held an umbrella over us, mostly over Penny. He looked at us as if we were mad, laughing in the rain. He saw blood through the tear in Penny’s jeans.

“Come,” he said. “Inside. Please. We fix.”

He pointed to Penny’s knee and she saw it for the first time, the blood, and then the tear and the rain-smeared muck running from her knees down the shins of the jeans. That odd look came and went again. She looked up and down the street and then back to the man. She glanced at me.

“No,” she said to him, “It’ll be fine. Thanks. I’ll see to it. Really.”

“Please come,” he said to her. “Is blood.” He pointed to her knee. “Must clean. Stop affection.”

“Stop affection?” she said.

“I think he means infection,” I said.

“Oh. Right.” She looked at me again, and it was as if she saw me properly for the first time, recognised me and placed me in the context of her own life. We looked at each other, standing on the pavement, dripping. We looked each other in the eye. “Stop affection,” she said with a smile, and I’m suddenly swimming in a green, green sea.

We’d met at university in Sheffield. She came from the moneyed side of the city, and I didn’t. We both wanted desperately to be independent, so she’d clubbed together with some girls she knew to get a room in a house off Ecclesall Road, and I’d got a room with some lads in a house in Crookes. We were completely on our own for, oh, at least two weeks. That’s how long it took us to hook up, and after that we were hardly ever apart. We never officially moved in together, I don’t know why, but from about the second or third week in we were always at one or the other place. It had just seemed so natural. I’d bumped into her in a bar, literally bumped into her and spilled her drink down her front and got embarrassed. I was a little bit pissed and so I tried wiping it off. I was babbling apologies like a real noob and wiping away the spillage with my sleeve across her breasts and it was only when she gave me That Look that I realised what I was doing. I jumped like I’d had a shock and then the words just streamed out. “Oh,” I’d said, and “Sorry,” and “Oh, god, I was just trying to get it off, really I was, I didn’t mean anything, please, let me get you another one, what are you drinking, are you new here, my god I’m a twat.” She’d smiled and told me to get her a replacement for her prosecco (which I found out later was really just cider in a fancy glass) while she went to clean herself up, and when she came back we just started talking and didn’t stop. We just kept talking and laughing and loving for the next three years, right up to the moment when I completely fucked it up. When I did the unforgivable thing.

That was nearly ten years ago.

The man finally lost patience with us. He wrapped his free arm around Penny and almost carried her into the coffee shop. He parked her at a little table in the window and then disappeared into the kitchen. I trailed along behind like a good puppy, my head full of all the things we did together and said to each other, dream-walking through memories. I remembered how good it was for so long, and then I remembered how bad it went, how it ended. I got nervous and stopped speaking. We just sat and smiled while I thought of all the things I wanted to say to her, all the queued up words that I’d practised so many times in my head, and then I realised that we weren’t students any more, that we’re not lovers, we’re not even friends, that I don’t know her now, and that she probably doesn’t want to hear any of the words that are damming my mouth.

The man reappeared, a first aid kit in his hand. He motioned for Penny to roll up her jeans leg and rest it on a chair and then he knelt down and took out a bottle of antiseptic and some cotton swabs. He wiped the grazed flesh clean with obvious expertise and then applied a large sticking plaster with similar proficiency. Penny just grimaced through the pain.

“Done this before, have you?” I asked the man.

He looked up. “Mam dzieci,” he said. “My children. Always bleeders.”

“Surely not,” I said.

The man just nodded and Penny grinned through the pain. He finished the dressing and stood up. He was smiling.

“Thanks very much,” I said to him, standing and shaking his hand. “You’ve been really kind. Let me buy you a drink or something.” I started fishing in the pocket of my jeans. The man put his hand on my arm and shook his head. He packed up the first aid kit and walked towards the kitchen. I felt the need to let him know how much we appreciated his help, so I patted him on his back as he passed. “Na zdorovie,” I said to him, with a grateful smile. There was a little stutter in his walk and then he gave me That Look, like the one that Penny used to give me. He disappeared through the door and I felt sure he was shaking his head.

I turned to face Penny. I was getting a bit sick of seeing That Look. I began to wonder how everyone in the world seemed to be able to do That Look except me.

“What?” I said.

“Cheers,” she said.

“You want a drink?”

She was shaking her head. “No,” she said. “I mean yes, I need a drink. It’s not that.” She began to laugh again, and I began to laugh with her. I had no idea why. “The nice man who tended to my knee just now, he’s from Poland.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” I said.

“I am right,” said Penny. “Dzieci means children in Polish. Na zdorovie, on the other hand, means cheers or good health. It’s a drinking toast.”

“Thought it was something like that,” I said, nodding and feeling quite pleased with myself. “I wanted to buy him a drink but he wouldn’t have it. That’s why I said it. I wanted to say something nice and familiar to him.”

“It’s a Russian toast,” said Penny. “The Russians have killed rather a lot of Poles over the years. ”

“Ah,” I said. “Bugger.”

She was laughing still. This was a good sign.

“Did you say you wanted a drink?” I asked her. “Coffee or something?”

She hesitated and then nodded. “Go on, then. Coffee would be good. A nice latte with an extra shot or two, please.”

I went to the counter and ordered the drinks from the Polish man, who smiled at me and again declined my offer of a drink. He took the money and then wrestled two double-shot lattes from the spitting steaming machines and on to a tray. “Na zdorovie,” he said, as I carried the drinks back to the table. There was a little stutter in my step this time.

I placed the drinks on the glass table top and sat down.

“Poland,” I said. “Land of comedy. Who’d have thought?”

She laughed again. It was a good laugh, a genuine one. She seemed to realise this, that she was being open and friendly and unguarded. Then she stopped laughing, and I felt at least one of those properties leave her.

We were drying out now, settling down. I had to start a conversation. “How’s the knee?” I asked her. I thought, that’s not a conversation, that’s a question. Idiot.

She leaned forward and placed her hand on top of the sticking plaster and gently rubbed her knee. “It’s okay,” she said. “Stings a bit, but it’s okay. How about you?”

I replied automatically. “I’m fine, thanks. No problems.” My back was killing me and my ankle hurt and my wrist was on fire. She didn’t need to know that though.

She sipped her latte and I sipped mine and she smiled and I saw her eyes slide down to look at her big-faced watch. She began fumbling in the little brown leather handbag that has been hanging across her shoulders all the while. I noticed that it matched her shoes perfectly. She was building up to a departure and I started to feel a little desperate.

“Look, Penny,” I began. I hoped that she knew what I wanted to say.

“Incredible weather, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, incredible. Penny…”

“How’s that brother of yours? Little Joe? Is he okay?”

“Joe’s fine, thanks and – look, Penny, I don’t want to talk about him right now, or the weather. I want to talk about, I want to…”

“I know what you want to talk about, Mac. Water under the bridge. Times past. Another life.” She paused and pulled the scarf off altogether and shook her head and her hair twirled all around it. She started to speak and then changed her mind and picked the little pink flower out of the vase in the centre of the table and twirled it round between her thumb and forefinger. “We can’t go back there,” she said, “even if we wanted to, we can’t change anything. And it doesn’t matter anyway. Really. It’s fine. Don’t worry about a thing.”

“That’s not what I wanted to say, Penny.”

She began to look uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I could see that she was afraid I was going to say something stupid, like I still love you or I will always love you or I can’t stop loving you. All of which were true. But none of which I could say right then.

“I just wanted to say sorry, Pen.”

She stopped fidgeting and looked at me again, stared inside me with those emerald eyes, saw my heart, saw it pumping like a maniac; saw that I still loved her.

“Mac…”

“That’s all. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I behaved unforgivably, ruined a fantastic relationship, spoiled the chance for us both to have what would probably have been a brilliant life together; and, worst of all, I hurt my best friend. And for that I am truly, truly sorry.”

“Mac…”

“No, really, I am incredibly sorry. I was an absolute dung beetle to do what I did and…”

“Mac, I’m married.”

I looked down and for the first time I saw the gold ring on her finger and felt it fasten around my manic heart.

“Well, that’s great news, Penny. Great. I’m really happy for you. Really.”

I smiled as sincerely as I could but she knew I was lying. Worse, I could tell that she felt sorry for me.

“So, who’s the lucky man? Do I know him?”

Again! That scared look flashed across her face again. It’s the eyes. They open slightly wider for just the briefest instant and I can see she is frightened about something. And then just as suddenly she is back.

“No, you don’t know him.”

“Is he from Sheffield?”

“No, he’s not from around here. Actually, I was on my way to meet him when the storm broke.”

“Really? Could I come with you?”

Flash! There it was again. What is it?

“Some other time, maybe. Not right now.”

“No. You’re right. Daft idea.”

She reached into her handbag again and pulled out her phone and checked it for messages. Her lips tightened for a moment. I couldn’t tell if it was because she was concentrating or if it was something else.

“Hey,” I said, “I can see you want to get away. I’d love to see you again though. Would that be okay? Could you give me your number?” I dug into my jeans and I got my phone out. It was a new phone, a contract upgrade, and I’d not worked out how to use it yet. “Give me a minute, Tuppence. I don’t know how to add contacts with this new software. I wish they wouldn’t change things every time they upgrade.”

When I’d managed to find the contacts I raised my head and a man was looking through the window at me. He was wearing a waxed green jacket and the lessening rain was running off it, and off his short-cropped hair and down his face, dripping from his nose and his chin. He didn’t seem to notice the rain. He was smiling, but without humour. He had dark eyes, and I saw that the irises were a deep brown, a colour so dark that they looked like enormous pupils, like a bird’s. He was a big man but he was standing behind Penny so she didn’t see him.

“Don’t look now,” I whispered to her, still looking at my phone. “We’ve got an audience.”

Penny looked around the half-empty coffee shop and saw nothing. She turned back to me. I did the old rub-your-nose-and-point routine and she turned and looked out of the window and I heard her gasp, a real old-fashioned gasp, like a sob. She stood up too quickly, banged the table and knocked over what was left of the drinks.

“I have to go,” she said. “I’m sorry. I have to leave. Goodbye, Mac.”

“Penny?”

“Goodbye, Mac.” She walked quickly to the door and out into the street. She didn’t look back. I got up and started to follow her.

“Hang on a minute, Penny. I didn’t get your number.”

I worked my way out from behind the table and stepped outside. Penny was already twenty feet down the road. I started to jog after her. She turned a corner and I followed and then there was another bang and a flash and I was lying on the pavement again, staring up at the clouds roiling above me. I could smell an odd sort of hospital smell, high up in my nasal chamber, and felt a jab of pain in my right cheek. I realised that my eyes were swivelling wildly. I knew this because everything else, all the buildings and the cars and the people, all the world seemed to be moving around as my eyes rolled uncontrollably. I realised that I’d been hit. Hit really hard.

The dark-eyed man was standing over me. He was still smiling.

I could see behind him an angel, a strawberry blonde angel, pulling at him, dragging him away. I saw him open the passenger door of a car, a big car, and push the angel inside. He walked around the car and passed me. He spat on me as he passed. I saw the sputum coming towards me but I couldn’t move to avoid it. It landed on my face. The car sank under his weight as he got in on the far side, the side I couldn’t see. On this side, the face of the angel was pressed up against the glass and she was looking at me and she was crying. She looked away and then the back of her head hit the glass, bang, and bounced off it, her head wobbling loosely like a marionette. And then her head hit the window again and rebounded once more and there was a squeal and the smell of diesel fumes and they were gone.

That was the first time I lost them.

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