‘One of these day you’ll find out how it feels.’ Susan said, trying hard not to cry. For the first time she felt able to appreciate the depth of her feelings for Alex; unfortunately it was terrible timing, as he had just decided he didn’t want to see her any more.
‘Come on Susan.’ He said cheerfully. ‘It’s not the end of the world. We just weren’t right for each other.’
Susan stood a moment, trying her best to be reasonable, to see it from his point of view; it was difficult, when it involved ending their relationship.
‘We’ve been together for over a year, think of all that we’ve done together, all the good things, the fun and so much shared.’ By now the tears were sliding down her soft cheeks as she cried, something she hadn’t done since the death of her Nan.
Alex looked at her, trying to think of something to say that would console her. He thought about his own feelings; she had been fun, the time together had been OK, but he couldn’t quite focus on how he really felt about them splitting up. Right now he felt guilty, because in seeing her so upset at the possibility of him not being there for her, he felt better. Deep down he knew it was immature, but still he couldn’t help himself.
‘Why not wait a while, and see how things go, see if we can improve things for both of us?’ Susan asked, wiping tears with a handkerchief, trying not to break down altogether.
‘Susan.’ Alex said, louder than he had intended. She looked at him wide eyed, surprised by his sudden outburst.
‘I’m sorry, but the fact is our relationship has been getting in the way of the time I have for kick-boxing. And you’re always nagging at me for watching too much football.’
To Alex this was fair, he had spoken his mind and thought as hard as it was being honest, at least she would appreciate that honesty.
Susan looked at him stunned, her face mirroring her feelings now. ‘How dare you!’ She said angrily, before slapping his face. She started to walk away, then ran, breaking down into heartbroken sobs.
Alex stood watching her go, wondering what he had done to deserve a slap. In his shallow mind, he thought regardless of the last bit, it had gone better than he had hoped. After all, he thought, there were plenty more fish in the sea for a seventeen year old lad.
Black fungus lined the top of the walls in the bathroom. Blue paint had given way to dampness, slowly covering the corners and edges of the walls. If something wasn’t done soon, it would begin to smell, and would need a lot more work doing to it.
‘Alex!’ Alice called, waiting patiently for a reply; the only sound she could hear in return was the thump, thump, thump of music from his bedroom.
‘Alex!’ She called again, waiting impatiently. After a few moments of listening to the thumping bass through the floor, she left the bathroom and charged into his room. ‘I was calling you!’ She said loudly, though barely loud enough to rise above the tinny barrage that passed for music.
‘Mum!’ Alex responded when he realised she was stood in his doorway watching him. He had been stood in his underpants playing ‘air guitar’, imagining he was Jimmy Hendrix onstage. Alice stood, waiting for a more reasonable reply. Finally becoming tired of his music and his antics she proceeded to take hold of his ear, and dragged him sharply out, back to the bathroom.
‘Aghh!!’ He squealed in indignation and pain. ‘What are you doing Mum?’ He pleaded, pushing her hand away.
After taking her time to ensure she had his attention, something that had proven quite rare in his teenage years, Alice let go. She stood looking around, waiting to see if his attention followed hers.
‘What?’ He asked ignorantly.
‘This place needs cleaning, and painting.’
‘What’s wrong with it?”’ He demanded, at which she clipped his ear.
‘It’s black with mould!’ She replied, trying to restrain herself.
‘What’s that got to do with me?’
Alice sighed. ‘Well if you didn’t always spend hours in here listening to that crap music of yours, it wouldn’t get so steamed up, and wouldn’t get into such a mess.’
‘My music’s not crap.’ Was all he could say.
‘Get dressed, and get cleaning.’ She said, pointing her finger at him decidedly, before walking out.
Alex looked around at the grimy wall. Cleaning walls was not for hip young men like himself, he thought selfishly. He skipped into his room, pulled on some clothes that had been on the floor, after checking they didn’t smell too bad, and then climbed from his window, onto the porch and down out into the back. He quickly scrambled over the fence and was away, laughing that he had gotten away with it. He thought a moment that he had forgotten his wallet, but it wouldn’t matter – he could always find someone to lend from.
Each thump of the sledgehammer against the badly twisted bumper brought a tiny trip of pain to Stan’s wrist, but each time it did, he resolved to continue and would finish it no matter what.
He had been working on the Vauxhall Mini for months, trying to get it into shape, ready for his boy’s birthday, ready for his present, which was driving lessons, and a good reliable car. His son’s birthday had come and gone, with the car unfinished, but the sentiment had been good, and the lessons paid for, which made it all the more difficult to understand Alex’s reaction each time he visited.
‘Hey dad.’ Alex called.
Stan jumped, not expecting any callers. He looked up to see the boy he loved before him, as always looking scruffy, but cheerful nonetheless.
‘Hey kid.’ Stan said smiling at him. He dropped the heavy hammer to the floor, and walked over to his son.
Though Stan was always pleased to see him, in recent years his visits had diminished, and his reasons for coming were less to do with spending time with his father, and more because he wanted something. He was old enough to appreciate this was a part of his growing independence, but he couldn’t help wishing that independence didn’t rely so much on money.
‘Come and give us a hand on this eh Alex.’ Stan asked.
‘That old wreck!’ Alex said laughing. He failed to connect with the hurt look on his father’s face.
‘It’s not a wreck, it’ll get you around soon enough and you’ll be glad of it. Just wait until you finish those lessons.’ Stan replied.
Alex looked as if he hadn’t been listening, fumbling in his pockets for something, though there had been nothing to find. ‘I sold my lessons to a mate.’ He replied quietly, looking at his father indifferently.
The look of hurt on his face was unmistakeable. Even someone as simple as Alex couldn’t fail to be affected by his reaction. ‘Come on Dad, I’d never have found the time to do them anyway, you know how busy I always am.’
‘Yes, too busy thinking of yourself.’ Stan whispered, turning back to continue on the car. The car had become an analogy for his relationship with his son; he often imagined if he could restore the car, perhaps he could restore something of his relationship with his son.
‘Any chance of a sub?’ Alex asked. The question had always been the reason for the visit – more money. Some things never changed.
Stan handed over some coins he had in his pocket, and went sullenly back to his work. He didn’t hear his son leaving, he was gone within a few seconds not even bothering to say goodbye. He loved his son, but often wondered, as good as he sometimes seemed, if he would ever appreciate a father’s love.
The old man stood feeding the birds by the park pond. As he stared into the green water, simmering in the summer sun, he could just make out the concrete bottom, covered in green lichen, surrounded by debris from people’s passing. Ducks flapped around, splashing up water and fighting amongst themselves for greater share of the spoils. He wondered of their actions, and smiled. He could appreciate the greed of a few birds, but had little time for similar traits in a young man, a young man not so far away.
A group of teenagers walked aimlessly through the park, kicking a football away from a child, frightening another small group of young girls, in an immature but relatively harmless way. The sun was hot, they were young and carefree, and behaving as many do at their age, almost without a care in the world, nor for the world.
Alex saw the old man feeding the birds, and decided to have some fun, to impress his friends. He fleetingly thought of pushing the man in, but decided against it; he wasn’t quite that stupid.
Tip-toeing behind, he drew breath to shout out, to surprise him. His friends watched, giggling inanely amongst themselves.
‘Before he could shout the old man turned and looked at him eye to eye. He stared watchfully, his look piercing into Alex; something registered.
The smile fell from his lips, as the bright sun felt shaded, his face mirrored that of the quiet old man. The two standing face to face watching one another, the old man’s patience seeming to ebb into the younger man.
‘We are but shadows, as the sun crosses the sky. When the sun sets our time is no more…’ The old man said. The others around them hadn’t heard it, Alex had but failed to understand what it meant.
When Alex realised his friends were laughing at him, he finally shouted ‘Boo!’ and laughed with them. The old man didn’t respond, instead turning back to the sun silked lake and threw broken bread towards the splashing birds.
‘You take too much for granted.’ The old man whispered. Alex heard it, but laughed anyway.
‘What like?’ He asked, trying to keep face with his friends.
‘Love for instance’ The man replied calmly, a brief smile on his lips.
‘Ahhh, he loves you!’ One of the young men shouted, and the others followed with raucous laughter.
Frustration furrowed Alex’s brow, as he failed to keep up with what he saw as the man teasing him. Anger gave way to frustration.
‘Watch it old man, keep it up and I’ll give you something to remember me by.’ He said finally, unable to understand the man’s meaning, and feeling decidedly embarrased in front of his teenage peers.
‘As you wish young man.’
The old man threw the last of his bread, and walked away. Alex sighed, feeling better in front of his friends, but deep down dissatisfied that he had lost something that day. Shallow minds would never dwell on such things, and could never learn from a lesson so subtle. Together they continued on their way.
The child sat on a step, watching the world go by. People passed by, getting on with their lives, going about things without a care to one another of the disaffected lives of others.
The child threw a pebble onto the pavement. He felt cold, and not a little hungry, bored and alone. Strangers might spare a moment’s glance, a quick look in the corner of an eye here, and a brief smile there, then on with their journey. The child wouldn’t realise how much these people had seen, feeling invisible and forgotten, but as little attention as a stranger paid, deep in their minds each that looked would take a mental note to ensure all appeared well. If ever this wasn’t the case, there would always be someone to speak up. This was often how life worked, but to a doorstep child, all it could see was a life of forgotten loneliness.
The mind of a child, perhaps a selfish child is never remembering the love of a parent, even when it is given, never offering affection when some is needed. A selfish child is a child of want, an impatient child never satisfied with the simple gift of being loved without question.
If such a child had a name, it might be Alex.
‘What’s for tea?’ Alex asked, bold as brass, walking through the door past his mother. She turned and handed him a paintbrush.
‘Sometimes I think that’s all you need me for!’ He said, throwing the brush down.
‘If you want some tea, then do it.’ His mother replied sternly, picking up the brush, feeling the stiffness of her years.
He would still get his food, she knew she couldn’t let him go without. He knew she was soft. Either from an awareness of how much he was loved, or simple selfishness, he always knew he would get his way when it came to his mother.
He sat in the lounge, reading a television guide.
‘Susan telephoned, asking if you might call her.’ His mother said, walking into the room.
‘Pass us the remote control.’ He ordered, barking at her mockingly. Without another thought she picked up the remote and handed it to him. ‘What’s for tea then?’ He asked, this time not even bothered to try to be cheeky, he simply wanted to know and expected it.
His mother muttered something, hiding her feelings, and left him alone.
Alex spent his evening in much the same way as he lived his life, asking for someone else to do things for him, and trying to make the dullness of life as comfortable as possible – for himself at least.
Somewhere, an old man remembered, and thought about his day. Somewhere that old man made a deal, with something much older than himself, something as old as the world. Whether it was good or bad would have to be seen, whether he was a good man, only time would tell. An impatient young man would get a lesson that might teach others the meaning of respect, and more.
A sleepless night followed, filled with illusions and dreams, nightmares and apparitions. When it was over, Alex could barely open his eyes, feeling as if he had been drunk the night before. Odd given that not a touch of alcohol had passed his lips, for a change.
He scratched his head, and threw his legs over the bed, trying to wake himself from a heavy slumber. Although he always slept well, with little to care for in the world, he had never before woken feeling so old. The day appeared much as it always did, especially when he always rose close to noon. Donning the same clothes he had worn all week he staggered into the bathroom and looked at himself in the wall mirror. He felt shocked at what he saw, rubbing his eyes to clear his vision. At first he had seen withered grey hair, and baggy eyes. His breathe had been strong, as always, but this time it had black teeth to match.
As he rubbed his eyes and looked again, relief set in as he saw his regular features. He felt shaken, but laughed quietly to himself for his foolishness.
Downstairs was quiet, as his mother always worked in the mornings. Her part time job helped to pay for his upkeep, little that he appreciated it. There was often a note, telling him what food was waiting for him when he was ready. He picked it up, and read it, rubbing his tired eyes.
‘A world without love, knows little of compassion.’ The note read.
The writing was in his mother’s handwriting, but confused him. It was odd that she should write something like that. The short sentence had said more to him than he could ever remember from his mother before.
He read it again, trying to grasp what it was about, trying to understand what she had intended by it. The note ended up in the waste bin, barely understood and finally ignored.
Alex flicked the switch of the Hi-Fi and turned on his favourite CD – Enrique, Escape. He turned the dial, pushing the volume louder. It occurred to him that is mother had warned him several times against playing it loud after complaints from neighbours, but still he let it go. Each time the warning she had received had been more threatening, and each time she had pleaded with him to stop being so inconsiderate. Her calls forever on deaf ears.
A thumping sound followed on the walls, as someone on the other side made their feelings known. Alex thought for a moment whether to respond, but he was enjoying himself too much, and continued to ignore the minor distraction.
He spotted his mother’s mobile phone on the chair-side table. Picking it up he began dialling for friends, ignoring the fact that the home phone was nearby, and much cheaper. He had been warned many times how expensive her mobile was, but still he would use it anyway, simply because he wanted to.
Each time he dialled a number the same message came up, We apologise for the lack of service, please dial later.
Each time he tried to hang up, another message would follow, Love and responsibility are close bedfellows.
The day had started out odd, and for Alex was turning strangerby the minute. Skipping breakfast and leaving the Hi-Fi turned on he upped and left the house. He felt the need for some contact, and some fun to break up the stale morning air. As he walked down the back lane of the house he looked around, through the gates, into the different houses. He could see people stood, staring back, watching silently.
Walking faster, he felt a little reassured as he came to old Mr. Turner’s dog roped near the back gate. He had seen the dog in the same place each time he went out for as long as he could remember. Neighbours often comments how loving it was, and how unfair it was that it should be tied up, so unnecessary.
Alex held out his hand as he walked for it to make a fuss. Instead the dog just stood, looking at him as he her some kind of oddity.
‘What’s up boy?’ He asked, slowing to give it attention. The dog sniffed at his hand indifferently. It sat back and began scratching, ignoring his advances. ‘Come on Sabre.’ He said, trying to rub behind its ear.
His touch provoked a shock reaction, as the dog began barking, louder and more violent. Alex jumped back in complete surprise. He felt bewildered at its approach, as it struggled to free itself from the rope and get at him.
Alex turned and walked away quickly, muttering to himself, it just wasn’t his day.
The man’s wrinkly hand worked slowly and deliberately with the marker, trying to keep a perfect circle with each letter, a straight line as it merited. He switched markers, using different colours for each letter, offering something vibrant and eye-catching. As a young man he had often worked on things and sold them for a profit, today reminded him of that and for the first time in a very long time he felt good about himself – younger even.
The sign was finished, and he lifted it and put it in place. It read – ‘For Sale’ and beneath stated a price of $400.
Some of the Vauxhall Mini needed some work, but on the whole it was good enough, and with any luck he might find some unsuspecting mug who would buy it. Stan at the local garage had fixed him up with a false MOT for price, and he would soon have his reward.
Alex came around the corner nursing his hand. He hadn’t been bitten, but mentally it felt as if he had. The newly placed sign immediately caught his attention, stood atop the car his father had been working on for so long. In all the time his father had been working on the car he had never bothered to show his appreciation for the work, and yet now he felt surprised. He felt at odds with his own emotions, as he came to terms with finally realising something did matter to him, that he did actually care about something, he had to because this change had left him feeling hurt.
His father caught sight of him, looked, then turned away back with his preparations to sell and make some money.
‘Dad, what’s happening?’ Alex asked, trying to gain his attention again. The old man appeared indifferent. They stood looking at one another, the expression on his father’s features blank, as if he were looking at a stranger.
‘Well you don’t want it, so I’m going to make some money on it.’ He finally replied. Alex’s expression was the opposite of his father’s, as he felt things that he had never understood before; he felt confused.
‘I didn’t rally think about it before.’ Alex finally managed to mumble.
‘Well it’s too late now isn’t it.’ His father replied sternly. ‘I’m not going to miss a chance to make some money now am I.’ He said. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, sounding final.
His father lit up a cigarette and drew in a few deep breathes. ‘Ah that tastes good. Do you want one?’ He asked.
Alex remembered when he was growing up, how his mother and he had often nagged at him to give up smoking. His father had always enjoyed it, and it had been something special to get him to give up. For some reason his mother had broken down crying, just out of the blue into tears. Alex had joined her spontaneously, in front of his father. It was a minor issue at the time, but for some reason they had felt enough to end up crying over it. His father had never smoked again, until now.
‘I thought you gave it up?’ Alex asked.
His father looked at him with a sneer. ‘I enjoy them, so why shouldn’t I?’ Again it wasn’t a question; it had been a statement of fact.
Alex walked away, feeling more than a little empty. He had spent too long just coasting through life, and now his emotions were getting the better of him.
Needing comfort, he decided to head for Susan’s house, hoping she would be in, and more receptive to his needs.
The motorbike engine rumbled, each time the man pulled its throttle. It was a heavy black machine, much used and obviously powerful. Susan sat astride it, laughing each time the engine was gunned. Two men stood near her, ogling her.
‘Susan will you cut that racket!’ Someone called. It was her mother, stood in the doorway. She called again until one of the men heard her, and cut the bike off. ‘At last.’ She said indignantly. Her attention shifted to one of the men, and she smiled invitingly.
‘Mum will you back off!’ Susan called, annoyed at the interference with her fun.
Her mother ignored the demand, and continued eyeing the man. The man followed her advances, and walked over to talk.
‘Fine, go then.’ Susan said, spitting onto the tarmac below. The other stayed, rubbing his hands on her hair.
As he did so, Alex came out of the back alley and began walking up the drive. What he saw shocked him as much as anything he had seen that day. Susan had always disliked motorbikes, but here she was sat on one.
She looked different, dressed in tight jeans and a half cut top showing her stomach. She looked quite different to the shy caring girl of yesterday.
‘What’s going on?’ Alex asked quietly.
‘What does it look like?’ Susan snapped.
‘I don’t know.’ He said. The other man eyed him suspiciously, annoyed if there were competition.
‘Well mum’s messing around with one of my friends isn’t she!?’ Susan snapped again.
Her appearance and attitude had been a sea change, so different to anything he had seen before.
‘Come on, let’s go.’ Susan said finally, getting into position on the motorbike. Alex stood away, not sure how to react. He wanted to say something, but had forgotten what it was like to want something, or someone, and not have it. He couldn’t imagine how to respond.
The two looked back at Alex, laughing as they rode away.
The other man had gone inside with Susan’s mother, the door had closed. Alex was alone, and felt like it.
He walked, head down wondering why things were so different. He wondered if this was how it had always been, but couldn’t imagine how.
He found himself wandering through the main town centre, past shops he had grown up around. A screeching noise broke his depression, and he looked up instinctively. A car had stopped suddenly, and a group of people had begun to assemble. Thoughts of his present dilemma were forgotten as he watched the commotion.
As he walked nearer he could see the outstretched leg of a child, lying at an awkward angle from its body. The child was a small girl, lying in the road. Blood pooled from her head, her eyes stared up into the wide blue sky as if in a daze. Nobody spoke, all just stood looking with a morbid stare.
Alex felt sick, wondering when someone was going to act, why no one was caring for her. ‘Is her mother here?’ He asked timidly. Others looked at him, then around, showing little real interest.
‘Just a minute.’ Someone said from behind the crowd. Alex looked up, and could see a woman stood at a street bag stall; she was examining a leather black satchel, ignorant of her child’s desperation.
Nobody seemed interested in doing anything, as the child lay, ignored, suffering and unwanted. The driver of the car, having stood out looking at what had damaged his car, now sat back in and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Damned kids.’ He muttered, before driving away.
Alex stood straight, and in a fit of temper tugged at the woman’s arm. ‘She’s hurt there.’ He said loudly, unable to deliver anything more telling.
‘Get off me!’ The woman retorted, pulling away from him. She turned away, handed money for the bag, before finally tended to her daughter. Taking her arm at first, then under her body the woman lifted the child, struggling to cope with the dead weight, and threw her back over a shoulder. The woman carried the dead child away down the street as the crowd began to dissipate. Alex stood feeling numb, disbelieving something like this could actually happen.
He needed an end to it all, his mind reeling in confusion. Something inside him broke and he ran, down through streets he no longer recognised, over roads and paths he only recalled from his memories. In a side street, a small bird fluttered, its wing torn and twisted. Some children threw sticks and debris at it, laughing at its pain. An old man sat in a wheelchair, outside the back of a house, alone and lonely. The sheets he sat upon looked soiled and discoloured, stubble grown on his face from neglect. A cardboard sign hung from his neck by a piece of string, it said: ‘It’s not only old people who know the name of neglect.’
Similar bizarre images were apparent wherever he went, sending his mind into turmoil. Wherever he tried to go, something stood out that made him feel deeply uncomfortable.
Two men began fighting in the street, a handful of small children stood watching, as one of the children repeatedly spat at them, as they hit each other harder and harder. A woman lay on her knees, as a man pulled violently at her bag. The harder he pulled, the more she screamed and clutched at her bag, and each time he kicked her. The man won the battle, took the bag and ran. Alex walked past her, turning to gaze at her as he did. She looked at him, appearing surprisingly indifferent. ‘All that we are is a product of love.’ She said.
Alex ran again.
The sky was a cloudy grey, with fine spittle of rain falling. Each droplet broke the surface of the park pond, putting a blemish on Alex’s features in the water as he stared into nothingness.
His world was at the bottom of the pond, and the nightmare he lived now was an empty shell, devoid of emotion worth cherishing.
‘It’s a cold world without love, isn’t it?’ A voice said beside him. Alex looked around, but no one was there. In the reflection in the water, he could see his father stood beside him.
Little could surprise him now, after all he had seen and heard. An image of the bird struggling away from the hurtful children presented itself to his mind, and he felt tears in his eyes. Looking at the image in the water, he thought for a moment of what had been said.
‘What of a world without love?’ The voice asked again.
‘I don’t know.’ Alex replied.
‘So much responsibility that comes with love.’ Another voice said. This time it was his mother, again nowhere around him, but apparent in the water’s reflection.
‘I don’t understand.’ Alex said, trying to come to terms with what was happening to him.
‘You cannot expect love, nor compassion or understanding if you do not give it in return.’ Another voice said. This was the old man he had tormented before. Now the man stood beside him, not a reflection, but real.
Alex looked up at him. ‘Perhaps love is a two way street, and perhaps you should consider consequences when you talk of love.’ He said.
The old man smiled, his face wizened and creased with the bright sunshine on his skin. ‘There may be hope for you yet.’ He said, holding out a hand.
Alex responded, and stood up. They stood, looking at each other, in the same way as before. Alex thought he recognized something in the face, a familiar look, but he couldn’t recall where from.
‘Maybe too much love can be a bad thing too.’ Alex said. The old man rubbed his chin, and thought deeply, pleased that someone so young could understand so much.
‘Think for a moment, what kind of world it would be without love. Think how cold and hard it would be.’ The man said.
‘I think I have today.’ Alex replied.
The old man laughed loudly, a glint in his eye. ‘Yes perhaps you have, but I think you have much to learn, from your own words.’
‘I don’t understand you.’ Alex said.
‘If not for the love of those close to you, do you not think you might see the world as it has been today. We live in a world without love, or at least where love is rarer than you would imagine. For some reason, you live in your own cocoon of a world, surrounded by those who give love, and protect you from the darker side of life.’
Alex could not reply, he had no words to express his feelings.
‘Love is a smile, of seeing someone happy. Love can be its own reward.’ The old man said quietly.
‘Why me?’ Alex asked, wondering of how he entered into such a situation.
‘Because my friend, I think to myself, if it is possible that a young teenage boy could learn the value of love, and all that it beholds, then perhaps there is hope that the whole world can.’
The old man had said enough, and walked away, leaving him to his thoughts.
Alex sat on a bench and stared into the water. Now he could see the bottom of the pond, and no other reflection than his own. Except now he could only see the old man’s face in place of his own. He wondered of his life if it had been so selfish, and how he might be in years to come; would he be alone and lonely, neglected and forgotten.
He felt thankful for the enlightenment, but decided against wondering of the old man. Hopefully he would never come to see him again.