WIP: The Flame – Chapter 3

The only thing I did when I got back to the apartment was everything that you shouldn’t do when you’re damaged. I poured myself a very large whisky, I chomped down a handful of paracetamols, I emptied a tray full of ice cubes into a plastic bag and held it to my face. I didn’t tell anyone that I was hurt. I didn’t consider that I might be in shock. I just sat in the battered leather swivel chair I use as a thinking chair and held the ice cold bag to my red hot face and stared out of the patio window at the returning storm. The gloom of the lowering clouds matched my mood, and the trickles of rain running like teardrops down the window simply increased my melancholy. I felt the cold and darkness of a wet night from another time descend on me. I knew where this could lead, and so I got up and hobbled around the apartment and thought about how to find Penny.

Of course, that lasted about ten minutes. I was quickly drunk and I started to remember things about when we were together, and they took me off course, these remembrances, they pushed me out into a stream that became a river that became a flood. I could almost hear the sound of the memories floating past: whoosh, the bump of that first meeting; whoosh, that first date in the restaurant; whoosh, the first time we made love in her springless bed; whoosh, the holiday in Crete; and whoosh, and whoosh, and whoosh and she’d gone. She’d gone because I betrayed her.

The thing is, I couldn’t remember how it happened. I couldn’t even remember what happened, to be completely honest. I remember going out that night, somebody celebrating something, getting a job maybe, and being on the lash. Just boys, it was, just me and some of the other lads from University out for a laugh. Penny was out too, catching up with some of her friends, saying goodbye to some of them. I don’t like getting too pissed. I turn into a gobshite and fall over and throw up and what have you, but I must have mis-judged it that night because I was absolutely all over the place by the end. We were in a club, which shows you how pissed I was because I can’t stand clubs, all that shouting and leering and noise, all those people too close to you, all that tension. Can’t stand it. So I don’t know how we ended up somewhere like that. I can remember that there were these girls, suddenly there were girls, and they’re talking to us and laughing and we’re all laughing with them. And I remember her. I remember her face, anyway, round and brown and smiling. I remember her naked back, when she got out of bed and stood up and answered the door. I remember Penny’s face as she stood there, looking at me lying naked on the bed. I think I remember laughing. Unbelievable. Laughing as her heart breaks. What kind of a twat am I?

I looked at the glass in my hand and realised that this wasn’t what I needed right now. I needed to be doing something, trying to find her. I tried to put the glass down on the table and I almost dropped it as a needle of pain jabbed through my wrist. I walked to the mirror, the big full-length art deco mirror at the end of the room. As I approached it I could see myself hobbling a little, hunched over, holding the bag of ice to my face. Up close, I saw that I had a streak of blood-snot on my upper lip and that the right side of my face was inflated and my right eyelid was almost closed. My hair is never tidy but right then it looked like a wig, like somebody had just stuck hair on my head, randomly, with glue. I was a mess.

A key slid into the lock and the apartment door opened and Extraordinary Joe walked in. Extraordinary Joe is my brother. He runs a one-man-band web design company and doesn’t work to any set hours so he just turns up when it suits him, which is fine by me. There’s nothing for him to interrupt these days. Joe’s more than a little obsessive. Obsessive-compulsive, I mean. Everything has to be in the right place, the right way round, and clean to the point of sterility. You couldn’t find a better person to look after your home. He’s great at looking after me, too. There’s only the two of us, you see. Since the incident, I mean.

The incident. For some reason, it’s the sounds I recall more vividly than anything. There were other sensations, the smells of petrol and booze, the taste of blood, and a sight that I’ve tried to forget all my life, but it’s the sounds that I can most readily recall. I can remember my brother’s sniffles as he cried, and what our father said just before it happened. I can remember hearing the squeal of the lorry’s tyres as the driver braked, and the crunch as it hit us, and the screech of metal on tarmac as it pressed the car down and shunted us sideways along the dual carriageway. I can remember the soft patter of rain in the silence after the crash. My brother’s screams. I can remember these sounds very clearly. I still hear them, most nights.

Dad had been talking to himself ever since we left the funeral, although it wasn’t really talking, it was more an uncontrolled muttering, as if the stream of words swirling around in his mind were just leaking out of his mouth. I can’t be sure, I mean nobody can, not now, but I think he didn’t realise that he was doing it. Maybe he did, though. He was really gone in those last few months, really weird. Maybe he was hoping we would hear what he was saying, and that the words would penetrate our young consciousnesses. Who knows? I certainly don’t. If he was hoping that we’d hear his words he might have been disappointed to learn that we didn’t, not clearly anyway. We were belted up in the back seat of the car. He was facing away from us as he drove along in the drizzling rain, and the music and the wet hiss of tyres on tarmac made it difficult to hear him properly. 

Joe was sitting right beside me but says he can’t remember hearing any specific words at all. I suppose that’s understandable, given what happened. I can remember a few of the words that our father said, though. He said “Margaret” a couple of times, which I suppose is also understandable, it being his wife’s name and that it was her funeral we were driving away from. “Dead and gone,” he said once as well, enunciating each word, as if he was explaining something. I don’t know who he was talking about. It could have been mother. It could have been himself. The words I remember most clearly, apart from his very last words, are “little fucker”. Again, I’ve never been able to work out for certain who he was talking about. It was probably Joe, but it could have been me, or some other little fucker altogether. 

We’d pulled up at the red lights at the bottom of the hill near my school, not far from home. It was the junction with the ring road and these lights always took forever to change. They still do, even now. I saw him take the little hip flask from inside his jacket and knock back a big gulp of whatever it was. He glanced at the rear view mirror and caught sight of me looking at him. His eyes were remarkable, such a light grey they were almost colourless, but with a strong outline to the irises, as if someone had drawn around them. In the lowering light of that late winter afternoon they almost seemed to glow. I have this eyes, although mine are a deeper grey than his were and so are unremarkable. Joe’s are brown, like mother’s. Maybe that was part of the reason. That, and being born. Mother had a stroke in the delivery room. She never really recovered from that.

I saw him look at Joe. “Little fucker,” he said. I put my arm across Joe in case he was going to start on him again but he turned to face forward, the lights of the dashboard colouring his face a sickly green. I saw him look to the right. A lorry was speeding along the dual carriageway towards the junction. I saw him look at the traffic lights, which were still on red. He was a lazy driver and rarely used the handbrake at lights. He took his foot off the brake pedal and the car began to roll down the hill. He glanced at me one last time.

“We’re all on our own, you know,” he said. “Every one of us.”

Something happened to Joe in the car that day, I’m not sure what, but anyway it means he’s not an average person. His legs don’t always do what the average person’s do and sometimes there’s a more than average amount of saliva when he talks but he is extraordinary and I love him. He’s extraordinary because he’s unlimited, in what he believes is possible, and in the love he gives to me.

“Hey, Joe,” I said, without turning round.

“Der-der der-der dum,” he said. It’s the melody from the Hendrix song. It’s his theme tune and our greeting. He came up and stood beside me, hands clasped together, upper teeth parked on his lower lip. I noticed the raw nicks in the skin beneath his jawline where he had cut himself shaving again. He looked at my reflection in the mirror and then at my face. 

“You look like an accident,” he said.

“It wasn’t an accident, Joe,” I said. I turned to face him and he saw me hobble and the way I was holding my wrist. He pulled the ice-pack away and got a good look at my face. He took his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Taxi,” he said, thumbing the screen. “Hospital. How’d it happen?”

I thought about arguing with him but decided against it. Bits of me were starting to hurt badly now, so I knew he was right. I needed attention. And arguing with Joe is a bit like hitting yourself in the face with a hammer.

“You remember Penny?”

“Penny?” His forehead wrinkled. “Beautiful girl. Nice smile. Curls. Why?”

“I bumped into her again,” I said, and I held up my arm. “Literally. I think I might’ve broken something.” I pointed to my balloon face. “She has a husband now. He doesn’t like me.”

“Ouch,” he said, and then he thought for a moment. “I can understand Penny whacking you. I would’ve too, after what you did. Why would her husband belt you, though? Have you ever met him before?”

I shook my head. As Joe read out the address of my apartment to the taxi firm I wondered about that, too. I’d never met the dark-eyed man before and yet, unprovoked, he gave me a dangerous hit, one that could have caused real damage. Why would he do that? What did he know about me? What had Penny said? And why had he hit her like that, too?

The people in the A&E department didn’t ask too many questions. They just piped me through their mending machine, scanned bits of me, told me that my cheek bone wasn’t broken and I didn’t have any other serious injuries but my scaphoid bone was fractured. They wrapped a short blue plastic cast around my wrist and told me that it was probably going to take a couple of months to heal. I was overjoyed.

We walked out of the sliding glass entrance doors and through the crowd of smokers that loitered there. I marvelled at the dedication shown by a one-legged man in a wheelchair at the edge of the crowd. One arm was heavily bandaged and attached to a drip that hung from a wheeled stand. He was rolling a cigarette while smoking an already lit roll-up. His cough as we passed sounded like marbles rolling inside a steel drum. He smiled at us as we passed him, and he struck me as the happiest man I’d ever seen.

“Could be worse,” said Joe, when he saw me looking at the man. 

“Joe,” I said, holding up my new blue arm and wriggling my fingers, “I need to use a keyboard. This thing is going to drive me nuts.”

“You can still use your fingers,” he said. I used two of my fingers to show Joe how I felt about the prospect of wearing a cast for two months.

We took a taxi back to the apartment and arrived just as the storm returned. The wind whipped along the street, sending people and papers scurrying all around. Fat spots of rain dappled the pavement that had barely dried from the last downpour. 

“You coming in, Joe?”

“Nah,” he said, looking up at the sky. “I only came by to say hello. I’ll come back tomorrow. You need to get some kip now, John. Get to bed.”

I nodded and smiled. Joe is the only person who calls me by my Christian name these days. I watched as he turned and scuffed away towards the flat he lives in around the corner. Two lads about the same age as Joe were walking along the pavement towards him.

“Love you, Joe,” I shouted.

Joe stopped. The two lads glanced at Joe as they passed him, stepping out on to the road to give themselves plenty of room to pass him. Joe shook his head.

“Do you have to do that?” he said, without turning round.

He was mumbling something as he set off again. 

My place is a penthouse at the top of an apartment block on Ecclesall Road. It’s near the city centre and I like to be in amongst things, and it didn’t hurt that it was a good price when I bought it. I usually run up the stairs but today I took the lift. When I walked through the door I felt absolutely drained and, even though it was only early evening, I knew I needed to sleep. I decided to have a soak in the bath before I went to bed. The new cast on my right arm made life awkward and led to an overdose of Radox, but I managed to get into a warm sea of bubbles and lie there and unwind and relax while I thought about the events of the day. 

Two hours later, stiff and cranky, I woke up in cold and scummy water and swore off baths for the rest of my life.

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