They’ve just introduced a fast lane in Liverpool. Honestly, in Liverpool. You’d think London would be the first place to get something like that. I’ve heard people in the office talking about it, about how ridiculous it is and how we’re all too busy, moving too quickly through life, but you know what? The people saying that are the people who hang around by the coffee machine all day doing no work at all and stuffing their faces with bagels and donuts.
…I wish we could get a fast lane here. Every morning when I trek over the bridge and head for the tube station, somehow always in a hurry, always running late, I am nearly tripped up by nudgers and shovers and idiots taking selfies and smiling at the camera like they’ve got nothing else to do and nowhere else to be. Don’t they have more important things to do than document their own daily outfit choices? Why don’t they get jobs, for Christ’s sake? This morning, I want to snap every selfie stick in sight.
…A fast lane would mean walking at my own pace right across town and into the tube station, without bumping into the person in front of me who has decided that right in the middle of the fucking pavement is a great place to stop and check their texts.
…I think about this as I head down the narrow escalator to the tubes, feeling the heat hit me like a sudden and very solid wall. It’s always so hot down here. My arms and thighs are itching in the heat and I think of the rash I found in patches on my skin this morning – probably the cheap hotel shower gel that I used last week. I tug at my collar and try to pull my sleeves down, getting the fabric away from my armpits, but it’s impossible. It’s the same every morning – wrap up warm to face the cold air outside, and immediately regret it once you hit the thick wall of heat and condensation of London’s intricate underground system. Someone told me once that it used to be a sewer – that would explain a lot.
…The tube to work is only a quick ride. I get the Central Line East between South Ruislip and Tottenham Court Road. Today, like most days, I am stood up and squashed between another man in a suit and a woman in a bright pink blazer. My nose is almost touching the back of her neck and, when I open my mouth, I can taste her perfume, sickly sweet and cheap, hovering in the hot, stale, air.
…The tube spits me out and I make my way through the furnace of corridors and escalators and up on to the cold street outside, glad of the fresh air.
…The office building is only two blocks from the underground exit. I see it loom towards me, wedged between a jewellers and a block of rental offices. The sign over the door reads ‘Randall and Rod Finance.’
…‘Morning Michael,’ someone sitting on reception says to me as I walk past. I nod her way but don’t look up properly – I am running late. Once I’m settled behind my desk, Maria, the office assistant, comes around handing out teas and coffees. Imagine handing out tea and coffee all day for a living. She must be so disappointed with the way things have turned out for her. I watch her walk away, her ass filling out her pencil skirt. She would be attractive, if she dropped a bit of weight and maybe a couple of years.
…She smiles a lot, but don’t we all?
…I turn back to the pile of paperwork on my desk and start wading through. Equity release requests, mortgage advice meetings, stamp duty. Across the room, I see Dave getting up and heading outside – he must be going for his cigarette break. He takes about eight a day, on company time. All in all, he must work about half an hour less than the rest of us, if not more, because of his dirty little habit. I make a mental note to tell Geoff, our boss and the ‘Randall’ in ‘Randall and Rod,’ about this the next time he brings up the pending partner position.
…Right before I am about to head outside to grab my daily smoked salmon salad from the deli on the corner, Geoff signals to me across the office, inviting me into his space. The sacred space of Geoff Randall. I go over to him, my heart beat picking up. I was late this morning. He’s going to tell me the promotion is going to Dave. He’s going to dock my pay. I can feel the sweat break out on my forehead even as I remind myself that I am being ridiculous, that I am a valuable employee and have been for several years.
…‘Michael, please sit down.’ Geoff gestures to the padded leather chair behind his desk and takes a seat across from me. He folds his hands together and looks at me with beady, rodent-like eyes. The rash on my left leg is bothering me but I try not to scratch it.
…‘Geoff, what can I do for you?’ A lump forms in my throat as I speak.
…‘Michael, I believe you need to contact your brother – he’s been in touch with the office.’
…I look at the phone perched on the desk between Geoff and I wonder why he didn’t transfer the call to me instead of calling me in here. He clears his throat and goes on, bringing his fingers together in an arch beneath his chin.
…‘I think there’s been a small family dilemma.’
…Nosey fucking bastard.
…I smile at him smoothly and say, ‘Thanks Geoff,’ then head back to my own desk, filled with annoyance that he has found it acceptable to ferret through my business, as well as a sense of relief that he didn’t want to talk about the promotion, or lack thereof.
…‘Michael?’ My brother’s voice travels down the phone like a ghost when I dial his number. ‘Is that you?’
…‘Yup,’ I say. ‘What’s up with Mum?’
…‘Michael, she’s passed. It was all so sudden.’
…My stomach turns to ice for a moment at the image of my mother, lying dead and cold in a hospital bed. It is swiftly followed by thoughts of funeral cost, time off work, travelling back home to Wales and spending precious hours with my brother and father. I look at Dave across the room – this will not bode well for the promotion.
…‘Michael? Are you there?’ John interrupts my thoughts.
…‘Yeah, sure. What do you want me to do?’ I flick a rogue scrap of paper into the bin like a football as John prattles on about Mum and the hospital staff and the arrangements for family to say goodbye. I feel sick, and am glad I didn’t get my salmon today. I agree to go home tomorrow and help with the funeral arrangements, but let him know I can only stay for a few days.
…I don’t have time to waste.
…I wake up disorientated, the small clear window with its vase of flowers foreign and unfamiliar to me. It dawns on me then, dreamlike, that I am in a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Aberystwyth, and that I am here because my mother has died.
…I don’t know how to feel, so I choose to feel nothing.
…I pull my body out of bed and forage through my overnight bag for some clothing. As I pull on a pair of jeans that haven’t seen the light of day in more than a year, I see that the irritated patches of skin on my legs and arms have gotten worse – what was yesterday only subtly raised and pink is now almost grey in colour. I touch the sensitive area on my forearm and am surprised that it almost feels fur-like. I shrug, thinking I’ll pop an antihistamine before leaving the bed and breakfast. Fuck crowding in to a grotty GP surgery.
…John picks me up from the bed and breakfast and I am struck by how clean the air feels as we step outside into the empty car park. I sniff it in, evidently perceptibly, because John says –
…‘Forget about the sea air, did you?’ He nudges me with his elbow.
…‘It’s just… different,’ I tell him. I can almost taste the salt and seaweed in the breeze that rolls over us as we climb into the old car. It clings to my throat.
…‘Yeah, sure.’ John starts the engine, which splutters and coughs and sounds for a moment like it’s going to fail completely. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t miss this.’ He gestures at the area around us as we pull out of the near-empty carpark and onto a narrow country lane. Just beyond the trees that line the road, the sea grows before our eyes, a huge glistening empty nothingness. ‘I hear your snot actually turns black in the Big Smoke,’ John says.
…I assure him that no, I don’t miss the tangy stench of seaweed, the creek of a rusted clurch or a bonnet covered in seagull shit. Still, I am stunned by the silence of this place. The roads are empty – not a single vehicle has passed us. My ears hum with the echo of car horns, shouting, rushed footsteps, delayed tube announcements and mobile phones sounding off.
…‘So, how are you, Michael?’
…‘Oh, I’m great,’ I tell John. ‘Work is -‘
…He sneers and jerks the car around a bend.
…‘Unbelievable,’ my brother says, turning to look at me. ‘I don’t give a shit about work, Mikey. How are you?’
…I stare at my lap, trying to think of something to say.
…‘I tell you our mother has died and all you want to talk about is work?’
…Right. Our mother.
…‘Well, I’m devastated, obviously.’ I look at my brother, who has turned back to the road. He seems satisfied with the answer, although it’s a lie. I feel very little. I am waiting to feel. I am waiting.
…‘I can’t pretend I was shocked by it,’ John says. ‘But it certainly was a tough blow when they told me. I wish you’d been there, to say goodbye. Dad was with me but he wasn’t much help.’
…‘No, don’t suppose he would have been.’ I picture the great fool, his fat gut protruding, crying like an overgrown baby at our mother’s bedside. Then I feel an unwelcome wave of guilt.
…‘It’s good to see you, bro.’ The car glides gently down a small hill into the town where my parents have lived all their lives, and where John lives with his wife. He leans over and pats me on the arm, still looking through the windscreen at the road ahead.
…I wince slightly, and he asks me what’s wrong.
…‘Oh, nothing, just a bit of irritation. My skin.’ The top of my arm where John has touched me is burning, as though I’ve been bitten or stung. I’ll have to get some cream if this doesn’t clear up soon.
…‘Oh, irr-it-a-tion, is it?’ He speaks in a thick, mocking, English accent. ‘You sound like more and more of a twat every time we see you. Which, incidentally, is not often.’
…‘I’ve been busy,’ I tell him, shrugging slightly. The truth is, I don’t make much effort, but I don’t have a whole lot of reason to. Sure, I get on well with John, and even with his wife, Linda, but I’m just not interested in children, even theirs, and I have zero desire to spend any time with my father. John would say we’ve never seen eye to eye; I would say he’s a lazy fat old bastard with no motivation and I’m… well, I have a career, ambition, a life.
…‘You coming home for Christmas this year?’
…I shrug again. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
…The car pulls up outside of John’s home on the seafront – it is my childhood home, and the place where I grew too big for this town, too big, even, for this country. I look around me, see the sea lapping at the cobbled walls and realise that I could never have stayed here in Wales.
…We step over the threshold and the smell of freshly baked bread hits me. I allow myself a moment to breathe it in. I haven’t eaten bread in over two years. Linda hurries from the kitchen and takes my bag. She looks flustered and tired. There are dark shadows under her eyes. Kids will do that to you.
…‘It’s so good to see you Michael,’ she says, her eyes wrinkling at the corners. I notice she isn’t wearing any make up, and wonder if John minds. I guess he doesn’t, from the way he’s kissing her now, squeezing her into an embrace, drinking her in as if he last saw her thirty years and not thirty minutes ago.
…‘You too, Linda,’ I say. My arms and legs are really itching now, and I try to scratch at them through my clothing, but can’t get any satisfaction.
…‘We’ve sent the kids to my mother’s,’ Linda tells me. ‘We felt they were too young to attend a funeral.’
…John nods, solemn. I’m not sure what they mean – we all live and we all die. The sooner you learn that, the better.
…‘C’mon bro, I’ll show you to your room,’ John says, turning to head up the stairs.
…The Church is dark and cold. I sit through the funeral and listen to the Pastor, a man I don’t know, talk about my mother. He says all the usual things – that she was kind, and generous, and a good woman of God. He doesn’t talk about the way she used to bake the best Welsh cakes in the town, always with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top; he doesn’t mention the way she used to kiss the tops of our heads before we left for school each morning, or the way she put up with my father and his drinking for over fifty years.
…But none of that matters now anyway. I still feel very little, even as I watch the coffin swallowed up by the furnace, like a big hollow monster. I don’t cry, even when I try to.
…The wooden pews are uncomfortable, and my arse is starting to feel numb against the stiff material. I feel as though I am sat on something hard, like a hairbrush, but every time I feel behind me for it, there is nothing there.
…‘Alright, boyo,’ my father says later, once we have all piled out of the Church and moved into the hall for the wake. He claps me on the arm and I wince – the skin there was almost black this morning, and I am worried that it could be cancerous.
…‘Dad.’ I nod, then turn to find the bathroom, because I have nothing to say.
…I lean back against the toilet cubical door and take a deep breath in. All morning, I have been overwhelmed by family members, long-lost aunts and cousins, friends of my parents and children clambering all over me. I am accustomed to being surrounded by a lot of people; I am not accustomed to having them talk to me, to having them make eye contact.
…I pull down my trousers and gawp at my thighs – they’re covered in thick hairy black hair like something from a horror movie. I look like a werewolf. Fuck. I turn to sit on the toilet and am aware of a clunking sound. When I look behind me I see a small, tube-like thing protruding from my coccyx, about the size of a long finger, or a hot dog. As I stand to get a better look, the lump of flesh clangs against the toilet lid and catches – a thin drop of blood appears on the new pink flesh. My mind goes again to the possibility of a tumour and I think about how unfair it is that someone who works hard and exercises and doesn’t smoke can get ill, while layabouts like Dave get off scot-free.
…Life’s a bitch.
…Once I’ve finished with the bathroom, I head back out into the wake, pushing the rash and the growth firmly to the back of my mind, at least until I can get to a doctor. Dad is busy regaling a group of locals with a story about Mum, and the time that she got stung by next door’s bees.
…‘Who keeps bees for pets anyway?’ Dad is saying, to much amused sniggering.
…‘They weren’t pets, Dad, they were for honey.’ John is stood next to my father, his brow furrowing in impatience. The story is retold, always with added components, at every get-together.
…‘Oh, whatever, I dun’ bloody care about that, Johnny boy,’ Dad says. Then he turns and sees me. ‘And here he is, the other one.’ He extends his arm, inviting me into the fold.
…The rest of the afternoon passes in a blur of people chatting and sharing stories, family friends crying, aunts planting wet kisses on my cheek and later, the kids arriving and playing with toy cars and colouring-in books.
…I look around for the bar, and pass the evening in a blur of whisky and numbness, before falling into bed, exhausted.
…I wake in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. A dragging, thudding sound follows me along the corridor. I turn and jump at the sight of a snake behind me. I move back, and it follows. I move again and it stops when I do and that’s when I realise that it’s not a snake, but a long, thick, tail. I rub my eyes trying to clear them. The growth on my coccyx has gotten increasingly bigger in only a few hours, and is now as long as a guttering pipe.
…In the light of the bathroom, I try to hack at it with a razor blade, but it hurts, and the thing is as thick as my own arm. I will go straight to the doctors in the morning, I tell myself as I head back to bed, panic rising in my chest. I will go even if I have to sit next to an inadequate stinking of piss and coughing up a lung.
…‘I’m telling you,’ John says to his wife over breakfast. ‘It may be paved with good intentions, but it’s a road to hell nonetheless.’
…‘He’s just ambitious,’ Linda replies, sipping her tea. ‘He’s driven. He’ll settle down when he has kids.’ She rubs her eyes, tired.
…‘If he has kids.’
…‘Stop interfering,’ Linda’s voice is stern. ‘If he wants to be caught up in the rat race, then let him. You’re different people, John. You have different ways of life, different values.’
…‘You’re telling me,’ John answers. ‘I’d never up and leave without saying goodbye.’
…‘Maybe he had a meeting he needed to get back for?’
…‘Maybe. He didn’t mention it though.’ John leans forward, looking into Linda’s eyes. ‘Honestly, I don’t think he coped well with the funeral yesterday.’
…‘He did leave in a hurry,’ Linda nods. ‘He left one of his bags too.
…John doesn’t reply, merely stares across the table at his wife, and takes a bite of hot buttered toast, letting the hot grease congeal on his lips.
…\‘You know, I think he only had one bag -’ John begins, but Linda jumps up, cutting him off. She clutches at her chest with one hand, pointing to the kitchen door with the other. Her face is ashen, white.
…‘John!’ she screeches, and he turns to see a fat, hairy rat perched in the doorway. He responds by grabbing the sweeping brush propped against the wall.
…‘Get it out! Get it out!’
…John moves towards the rat, the sweeping brush raised above his head. He brings it down in one swooping motion and narrowly misses the startled rodent. He follows the rat, which scurries along the corridor and up the wooden staircase, its tail trailing along behind it, like a long, wet, worm. Linda’s screeches echo along the hall, following them both.
…The rat vanishes through a crack in the skirting board, its tail disappearing in a soft, sweeping motion, swallowed up by the wall and into darkness of the old house.