|Posted by James Flynn on June 30, 2016 at 5:00 AM|
So, I've been saving up a few short stories over the last year and a half or so, and my original intention was to maybe publish them in a book of short stories in the future when I'd built up enough. What with life and work increasingly getting in the way of things, this goal is getting pushed further and further away. Yesterday, I decided that rather than store some of these short stories that I've written, I will post them on here bit by bit. It certainly won't be a regular feature, but I do have the one story below for you to read. As you can see, only half of the story is here. The reason for this is that I want to see if anyone is interested in reading the rest of it. Have a read of the first half of this story, and if you'd like to read the rest, just leave a comment on here, or better still, tweet me at @james__flynn (that's two underscores) and I'll put the rest up for you. A lot of people put stories up on their blog one chapter at a time, and I suppose that this is a variation of that, but rather than break the story down into several segments, I'll just split it in half and post the rest as soon as I know that at least one person is interested in reading the ending. The thought of people reading my work on here gives me motivation to do more writing as well, so hopefully a few of you will want to read it.
Here it is. Enjoy...
The sound of laughter and cheer echoed in from the high street outside as the pub goers got merry from their third or fourth drinks. Living above a row of shops opposite a pub often resulted in a lack of peace and quiet, but more often than not, I was grateful for the sense of company that it provided. There was a time when I could've been down there with them all, living it up and drinking the night away, carefree. But that was in a past life, when I was a younger, fitter man.
I remember the night of the accident well. I’d woken up in the hospital bed and knew that I'd lost everything that was dear to me. It was a wet and rainy September night, dazzling headlights and drizzle on the M25 — the classic recipe for disaster. I had been driving that night. We were all coming back home from a weekend away in France. My wife was in the front seat next to me, and both my parents were in the back. Quite an unusual setup some might say, but we’d gone to France in my car and that's how it panned out. It's crossed my mind on many occasions that we may have been the victims of a drunk driver that evening, as I remember the other car coming straight at us as if he'd had no control whatsoever. It'd sent us spinning round one hundred and eighty degrees, pointing us back towards the oncoming traffic. All three lanes were tearing down towards us, wheels blazing. I was the only one in the car to make it out alive, although I often wish that I hadn't. The driver who'd caused the pile up was nowhere to be seen; sped off in a cloud of exhaust fumes with no intention of stopping. Every witness had been too shocked and panicked to even think of memorising the number plate, but they all agreed that they'd seen the same car: an old Ford Sierra. Considering my somewhat chequered medical history, I think I should have been the one who died that night, but bizarrely, and rather cruelly, I survived. I'm no stranger to hospitals; by the time I was ten I'd had several operations on my heart already. I didn't expect to be back in there after a car accident but that's exactly what happened, and my world has been one of torment ever since.
I'm the only one left. The only thing for me to do now I'm told, is to pick up the remaining pieces of my life and try to move on. All I really have now is my tiny flat, along with the piles of boxes and random junk that lies scattered around the place. The clutter consists of old items belonging to my parents and my ex-wife that I can't bring myself to throw out or get rid of. Heaps of shoe boxes are stacked against my walls, old picture frames wrapped up in newspaper and bubble wrap sit on top of every work surface, and old ornaments sit in plastic containers gathering dust. The accident had changed me in more ways than one. My health steadily declined, and I now weighed just half of what I used to. My appetite was almost non-existent, and it took several sleeping pills to get me to sleep at night. It's been over a year since the accident, but the whole experience is still fresh in my mind. I'd got into the habit of walking for miles every night to try and keep my head clear. The dark suburban streets were more forgiving at night than during the day. Passing the rows of terraced houses had become a form of company for me, helping me to escape my thoughts, as well as my flat. As I walked similar routes at regular times the cars and paving slabs became over familiar, and I knew the voices and shapes from behind the curtains better than I should have. The living room lights illuminate the pavements, revealing silhouettes of winding down families, tired after their daily routines. I'd become a drifter of sorts, floating aimlessly along the streets, watching residents from afar and channelling the warmth that I now missed.
It was a Friday night, and I'd spent the previous four nights walking the streets into the early hours, not wanting to face the dingy confines of the flat. This could not go on, and I knew it. I was taking more and more sleeping pills just to knock me out every night. I could no longer bear to be alone in my apartment, no longer bear to be reminded of my past life by the endless jumble that filled every room. It would've been so easy to go to the medicine cupboard again and forget everything until the next day as I usually did, but there was something that I had to do, and I'd put it off for long enough already — it was time to start the mammoth task of clearing out my home. I could feel myself slipping away, and knew that if I didn't do something soon, I'd deteriorate even more. I'd spent the last two hours bagging up letters, bills, and old video tapes that were never going to be used again. It'd been hard, but I did feel slightly better for my efforts. Having cleared some space, I found myself sitting down amongst the remaining boxes, flicking through some old family photos. They alone filled two big boxes, and ranged from old black and white Polaroids to more recent colour photographs — dusty and untouched for years. Instinctively I went straight for the photographs of me as a child, thumbing them in my hands, carefully. I remembered seeing some of them already at some point in the past, but there were others that were new to me. Most had bent and yellowed edges and showed their age with their grainy, hazy images of the past. It's amazing how old photos can reignite a long lost memory; something that could've been completely forgotten and buried away deep inside one's mind can be resurfaced upon the sight of an old snapshot, opening a door that'd long been shut. That was precisely what was happening to me as I held in my hands a picture of me as a young boy, standing on a big rock formation out in the afternoon sun. It looked to me like it was taken in Cyprus. It must've been Cyprus as my father used to have a timeshare out there, and the more I looked at it, the more I remembered it. I could remember all of the big rocks that I used to play on, all with their distinct shapes and sizes — the big slabs on either side at the bottom, the flat chunk of volcanic rock on top, and the small crevice underneath just big enough to crawl into. I used to play on those rocks throughout those holidays, lost in my own imaginary world, pretending to be an explorer, or acting out the fantasy life of one of my action figures. It was a great photograph, and it captured the essence of those times perfectly. Quite often I'd be entertaining myself out the back of the apartment while my parents got everything ready to go out for the evening meal and live show down in the holiday resort.
I stared down at the photo, reminiscent of those days way back when. Unlocked memories swam around in my head and I cherished them, thankful for their presence. I wished so dearly that I could somehow morph myself back to those magical, carefree days, but knew that I couldn't. The photograph must've been twenty years old. My clothes looked very outdated but I remembered every item that I wore as I wallowed in the silence of my flat, with just the faint sound of sirens outside for company. I thought I'd never put it down. I couldn't recall who took it, although it must've been either my mum or my dad. I was mesmerised by it. I studied every detail in the frame, from the paved floor surrounding the rocks, to the simmering afternoon haze that floated above the sea. Things started to leap out at me that I didn't remember at all: a dividing wall to a second apartment over on the right hand side; a small, tiny island out in the distance; and... a man sitting over on the rocky shoreline. He must've been a tourist, he didn't look indigenous to the area, and he was looking out to the sea at the back of our villa. He was far enough away from me, but he seemed to be aware of the picture being taken. I don't remember seeing him there, but then again, I don't suppose I would have. I eventually set it aside and continued to browse through some more of the old pictures. There were countless photos of my parents; all smiles and happy faces from way back when. I suppose they must have been in their late twenties in most of the pictures I was flicking through, judging by the look of them both. Tears began to warm my cheeks as I went through them all, the silence of my empty flat reinforcing their absence. Then I found another picture that caught my eye. This one was clearly taken in England. I was very young, and my mother held me in her arms whilst sitting on a picnic blanket in a field, the grey sky up above looking uncertain. The picture had a faded quality, and it had a look of the eighties about it. There were other people in the field just behind us: one couple, and just beyond them... one man, sitting in the near distance. I don't know why, but something about him seemed awkward and out of place. He didn't look like he was having a picnic as he didn't have any food or drink with him. He was just... there. He sat upright on the grass with an unopened bag by his side, looking off into the trees as if trying to look low-key. A silly thought popped into my head. It was a ridiculous thought, but I couldn't quite shake it off. I went back to the first pile of photos and found the one of me climbing the rocks in Cyprus. I didn't know why, but I just had a feeling that both men in the background of each picture were one and the same. I studied the man sitting on the rocky shoreline behind my father's villa. He was hard to make out properly, only his scruffy hair and black framed glasses were clear enough to fully make out, but it was a strong resemblance to the man sitting behind us in the picnic field in England. I held the two photos together in each hand and scrutinised them further, feeling increasingly jittery as I did so. A clicking noise from my bedroom made me look up, and moving shadows from outside were catching my attention. What was I doing? These pictures were taken at different times and in different parts of the world. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me again. I hadn't felt the same since the accident, and my doctor had advised me to take it easy. I threw the photos back into the box and got up to make myself a hot drink. Maybe it had been a bad idea to start sorting through everything, maybe it was too soon. I paced up and down the living room for a few minutes, trying to settle my nerves and stop my hands from shaking. Once my drink had cooled down I sat with my back up against the sofa, bundles of Polaroids either side of me where I'd left them. I wanted to lose myself in the old memories again and forget about what my life had become. I wanted to dig through them to relax and unwind, but I just couldn't help myself now. There was no point in trying to deny it — I was basically just looking for the grey haired man again, trying to see if he was in any of the other photos that I had here in my flat.
I had some different pictures in front of me now. These ones I recognised as being taken at a country house that belonged to a friend of my father. My memory of this time was hazy, but I think we stayed over there just before my GCSE's, and there was a shot of me sat at a big wooden dining table playing on a Game Boy, with a carton of milkshake in front of me and one of my old textbooks. I looked so different then, so oblivious to life's struggles. If only I'd known what the future held. It was a massive house with plenty of land all around it. I remembered it being up north somewhere — Yorkshire, unless I was mistaken. There were a couple of photos of my father and his friend, and another one of me kicking a ball around in the field out the back and... No. It couldn't be. It must just be an innocent walker, or a rambler passing through the field. I knew that that must've been the case, so why were the hairs sticking up on the back of my neck all of a sudden? The glasses were there, as well as the scruffy mop of grey hair sitting atop his head. It was the same man. His brown marble eyes were fixed on the ground like he was determined not to look up towards the camera, like he was trying to look inconspicuous and invisible. It was him, I knew it was. I didn't even have to check to be sure, but I did anyway.
I flicked through all the photos again just to check the similarities. It was the same man in all of them. He looked noticeably younger in the picnic photo but I could tell from the off-beat, eccentric appearance that it was him. My head began to spin and I felt sick. What was I supposed to think here? What was I supposed to do? How could I carry on as normal now after discovering this man had weaved himself into my life, embedding himself in my family photos for some unknown reason? I’d been out walking far too much that week already, but I had to get myself out of the flat again. I grabbed my essentials: phone, keys, wallet, and then headed downstairs and out into the night air — a place where my thoughts couldn't imprison me.
* * *
I don't know how long I walked for — probably a couple of hours. During that time, I realised that not even walking could help me anymore. I had a new problem now, and there seemed to be no escaping it. The face of that man clouded all of my thoughts, and something deep down inside me was telling me that he might've had something to do with the car crash. Maybe he'd been the one who had caused the accident? It was pure speculation, but I had nothing else. I returned home late that evening feeling no better than when I'd set off. I'd stayed up until sunrise digging through every photograph that I had in my possession. It turned into an erratic search through the whole flat, scouring through anything and everything that I had from my childhood.
There was a point during the night where I thought I may have been overreacting. I didn't find anything else of any real significance, and I started to wonder how big of an issue this really was. My brief spell of equanimity was not to last however, my horror resurfaced when I found my old school photographs. As soon as I pulled them out of the box they'd caused a distant bell to ring in my mind somewhere, like I could sense another revelation was about to come my way. I was looking for him of course, and I could feel that he was going to be there. There were lots of pictures from my secondary school, and they all caused a cascade of lost memories to jump out at me from the glossy surfaces. As I turned over each picture I knew that I was going to see him in one of them, but I just didn't know when.
It was in an old sports day snap that I next saw him. My blood ran cold as soon as I saw his face in clear detail. Now I could see him in a different context. A switch flicked over in my mind, and now everything fell into place with a deadly crash. He was stood with a clipboard behind some white tape. Other teachers were next to him as they all judged the races and events. That brown suit and black tie... I knew that he looked familiar. He had been a substitute teacher at my old school, the type that would turn up at sporadic intervals, covering another teacher who was off sick every now and then. Seeing him now was like stepping back into an old substitute lesson — doing crosswords and word-searches instead of proper school work, wasting time and watching the clock until lunch. He looked so recognisable to me now that I was actually annoyed with myself for not working it out sooner. The one thing I couldn't do, however, was put a name to the face. His name escaped me, which was weird because I could remember his lessons fairly well. His memory to me was one of relaxed, eccentric innocence. He used to have the presence of someone who was slightly vulnerable, someone who was more on our side than on the teachers' side. He carried the impression that he'd have let us get away with pretty much anything, as long as we all made it through the lesson in one piece, and that he made it to the end of the day without getting into trouble or losing his job. But right now, he didn't seem so innocent after all. I loosened my grip on the photograph as if the very material it was printed on was cursed. I couldn't shake off the feeling that this man had been the cause of the accident that had wiped out my family. I still had no real reason to think that, but I just did, like a subconscious part of my mind was warning me of something. The pile of photographs that this man appeared in was growing. The sad truth was that I'd never be able to look at my family photos in the same way again. They were lost to me now, gone forever, completely riddled with his presence.
The logical course of action would've been to visit my old school and have them dig out his old file. If all went well and I managed to get his name, maybe I could then go to the police. I'm not sure what action could be taken, but at least it would've been a start. But unluckily for me, my old school was no longer around. It'd long been transformed into a council civic centre, with all of the old staff having dispersed over the country, each following their own particular career paths. I knew this all too well, I often walked past it late at night trying to recognise the old grounds that I used to occupy for many years. I suppose that particular pleasure would now never be the same again either — another tainted relic of my past. Armed with only the photographs and nothing else, I had nothing to report other than a series of peculiarities. With no real evidence of any wrongdoing, they wouldn't be able to act. But I still knew that this would eat away at my very soul unless I solved the riddle that it presented to me. I had nothing — no family, no life, and no friends. All I had was this mystery to niggle away at me, and the empty void that’d been left after the car crash. My very existence had turned into a hellish, mystifying dead end that didn't even have the comfort of clarity to it anymore. All I had were the photographs, so I decided to do the only thing that I could — visit the locations where they'd been taken. I knew very well that it could've turned out to be a waste of time, but time was the one thing that I had plenty of. I'd travel to the locations that were nearby first, and then think about visiting the more distant sites if I still hadn't gained anything by then. I didn't have too much trouble remembering where all of the pictures were taken as childhood memories tend to imprint themselves on your mind, setting them in stone; a feature in life that tends to decrease after the age of thirty. As for the picnic photo, I knew exactly where I had to go. I'd be travelling down to the south coast.
* * *
For everyone around me, it seemed like a normal Monday morning as I headed down to the train station. I was in a fragile state but I was surrounded by the dull, grey atmosphere of the morning commute, where heads were buried in newspapers and books and nobody made an effort to speak to each other. I wondered whether I was doing the right thing. I couldn't sleep during the previous night despite taking my tablets, and could only manage half a bowl of cereal before leaving home. I felt vulnerable and exposed being out on the street. Maybe he was watching me now, tucked away in the distance somewhere behind a bus stop or driving past in a car. I continuously looked over my shoulder expecting him to be here with me, just a few paces behind. Fighting through the paranoia I straightened my bag over my shoulder and walked on towards the station, determined to see this through. There was no queue for the ticket booth as I entered the station.
"Just a return ticket to Brighton main station please," I said to the woman through the hatch.
I could feel her eyes on me as I stood on the other side of the glass, trying hard to make myself look as normal as possible. I noticed that she was discreetly trying to work me out as she processed my ticket, and it was that exact moment that confirmed to me that I looked visibly ill. She took the ten pound note from my shaky hand, trying to not come into contact with me. After tucking the ticket into my wallet, I walked out to the platform and sat down on one of the red metal benches that ran along it. I'd only been sitting there for a few minutes when the sound of the station's tannoy started to crackle above me:
"Approaching platform one, we have the 10.34 to London Charing Cross, that's platform one, London Charing Cross. Thank you."
With the train coming into view, things started to get real. I was actually going through with it — I was potentially trying to hunt down my own stalker. I'd never felt so alone but I'd made up my mind to do it, and so I had to see this venture through, just for the sake of settling my mind if nothing else. There were more people about now that the train was in view, as the platform had filled upon its arrival. I studied all of the families around me with undeniable envy. An elderly lady was in front of me with her young granddaughter, and next to them a young boy was complaining about being hungry whilst his mum and dad were engaged in a conversation of their own. I had long ago started to notice how people took things for granted and right now, I was seeing it magnified. It was like looking at life through a special lens, where only the ungrateful became visible and highlighted. If only these people knew what it was like to lose everything, then maybe they would appreciate each other more. The train rolled in — a line of carriages, all blue, white and yellow. The commuters tried to position themselves where the doors would open, preparing themselves for the rush to get on. I stood back and let them all board first, not wanting to get caught up in the commotion. I was the last to step on to the train on my carriage. It was a squeeze, and I was forced to stand by the doors. I poked my head out of the train, grabbing the last bit of fresh air I'd get before the doors closed and sealed us all in. It was then that I made eye contact with a lone commuter way back down the platform. He had one foot in the train doors about to step on, anticipating their closure. It was him. His thick glasses sat on his round face, framing his beady eyes that were staring right at me.
Even though I was technically looking for this man, my natural reaction upon seeing him was to jump off the train as he stepped onto it, therefore avoiding the nightmare of being trapped on it with him. He was looking at me with an adoring wonder, like my very presence amazed him. If I edged back on to the platform, he too stepped off the train. If I leant in towards the carriage, then he also did the same, confirming that I wasn't going to be able to lose him. The train doors started to bleep just ahead of their closing. I exited the train and walked back on to the platform, making no effort to hide. It was time to face him, right there and then. The train pulled away from me, whizzing past in my peripheral vision and grinding over the tracks as it screeched its way towards London. It left just the two of us on the platform like two cowboys in an old western movie. He looked noticeably older than he did in the photographs but those creased, eccentric eyes were unmistakable. They looked over me as if I was a long lost son... As we drew closer I could see his features more clearly. His hair was white and grey and sat lightly atop his head like it was ready to wither away and disintegrate. His round face was reddened and aged but neatly shaved nonetheless, revealing his knowing expression. Now that I'd found him I had no idea what I was going to do or say. I was aware of more commuters coming into the station now, emerging from the ticket office to my right. Most were staring at this strange showdown that was taking place right before their eyes. The man who had taught me at school, as well as somehow managing to get himself into most of my family photos was there directly in front of me now, and it sent my pulse racing around my body, my heart pound inside my chest. He wasn't really an intimidating man what with his off-beat librarian look, but it all became too much to bear and I felt the urge to run.
"Wait! Daniel..." he yelled, as I took to my feet, heading for the exit.
His words didn't sink in at first. It was only when I'd reached the car park outside that I realised he'd called me by a different name. Daniel? Who was Daniel? Who did this man think I was? I slowed down but didn't stop walking. The sloping pavement led down towards the main road below. Turning my head, I could see that he was following me. Steady streams of people were walking up the slope towards the station, and they too seemed to be able to sense the tense atmosphere in the air. I finally stopped and turned to face him again. He was a picture of silent admiration. He was studying me intensely like I was some kind of heavenly apparition but he wasn't making eye contact with me now, instead, he appeared to be looking down towards my shirt. If I'd have been in a more stable frame of mind I would have been furious by the sheer audacity of him, but I could feel myself growing weak, the lack of food and sleep had dented my energy and I hadn't even been that well to start with.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"You have no reason to fear me John. It's ok," he replied.
I silently acknowledged that he'd used my real name this time.
"Why are you here?"
People were now openly looking at us from a safe distance, trying to figure out what was going on. I felt the many eyes burning into me, and I didn't like it.
"Please John, come with me. There are things we need to discuss."
He spoke in a delicate manner, not unlike a doctor who was about to deliver some bad news. There was simply no way on earth that I was going to go anywhere with this man, no matter how unassuming he may have been. No way that is, until he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He passed it to me, urging me to take a look. It was an old thank you card. I could tell that it was old by the yellowed paper and outdated design, but these details skimmed past me as unimportant. It was the handwriting sprawled across the inside that made me freeze on the spot, unable to move. It belonged to my mother. The unmistakeable font and curves of her writing leapt out at me from the paper, making me feel as though I was in her presence once again. I ran my finger across the ink, as if doing so would let me be with her again. While this peculiar man, as well as the rest of the commuters, watched on, I carefully read the message.
'Dear Mr Crisp, we could never thank you enough for what you have done, but please just know that we are forever in your debt for your kindness, and we can only envy your warmth and generosity.
Chris and Jill'
Mr Crisp — that was the name that had been niggling away at me. That was the name of my supply teacher; the name of the man standing in front of me. It was like I suddenly had no choice but to at least give this man the benefit of the doubt. Right there in black and white I could see that at one stage my family had known him. I had to at least hear him out. He must've sensed my guard being lowered, for he gestured for me to follow him.
"Come with me John," he said, gesturing towards the car park beside us where presumably his car was parked.
I felt wary getting into the car with him, but had to get away from all of the prying eyes. Besides, going back home now with no answers to this riddle was simply not an option any more. I climbed in to the car in a dazed, overwhelmed state, not knowing where we were headed, nor how he'd even found me in the first place.
End of part one.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Leave a comment on here or tweet me to read the second half. Remember, if I get just one request for the second part to get posted, that will be enough. Thanks.