The short story that isn’t.
‘Okay Sal, see you tomorrow. Make sure to lock up before you leave!’
‘Yes sir, will do of course,’ replied Sal. As the door slammed shut, he continued: ‘just as I do every fucking day innit? When do I ever not bloody lock up?’
Sal threw the broom on the floor and went in the back to grab his jacket and the keys. Priming the alarm he headed for the door, then paused, went back, picked up the broom and put it back in the closet, heading out just before the security was armed.
He held the keys in his hand and hesitated for a moment; thinking, contemplating, pondering…
Then he nearly dropped them on the floor as someone slapped him on the back.
‘All done Sal? Chalo, Khan’s tonight?’
Sal recovered himself, locked the door, turned and shook his head with as sincere a smile as he could muster: ‘No yaar, busy. Phir kabhi.’
‘Ah, cricket on the telly tonight, nah? Okay, no probs. Tomorrow then. See ya!’
Sal watched as Would-Be-Friend departed with a grin and thumbs up. A jaunty walk. A carefree bounce. Almost a Bhangra beat in his steps.
He reached his car, whipped out keys from his pocket and made an elaborate gesture of unlocking and getting into the ancient and ratty old Nissan Micra, as if it was a damn Porsche-some-numbers thing.
And then he actually turned and smiled again, as the barely-MoT-pass hatchback spluttered into life and stuttered off down the road. In his head, he was probably burning rubber in a Lamborghini.
The absurd grin fast fading from Sal’s face, he stared daggers into the back of the crusty Nissan, vividly imagining the rear axle imploding and the wheels snapping right off. The back end collapsing onto the tarmac and firing up bright sparks as the front wheels continued to drag the amputee automobile on its, no-doubt mock-merry way.
Suddenly Sal checked himself. He shook the image out of his head. What had Would-Be-Friend ever done to him? He was never anything but nice.
Nice. Yuck! Sal shuddered. ‘Makes me sick. What’s he got to be jolly about, anyway?’
He turned and somehow willed his feet into a dragging shuffle towards the Bus Stop down the road. When he got there, there were people waiting, as there usually were.
The old lady that always loved to moan about everything, particularly young people. The young people that were always within earshot, but despite his fears, were always too embedded in their smartphones to notice.
The ‘arre-no-problem’ know-it-all pacing around the Stop, always on the phone, either loudly telling people what they were wrong and what they should be doing, or proclaiming how brilliant he was and how he was going to totally solve their problem: ‘Fikher he not, yaar!’ If he’s so awesome, why is he waiting for a bus?
There was the hassled mum with the powerhouse toddler and the screams that would wake the dead in the cemetery in the next borough, if it wasn’t constantly plied with sweets, which of course amplified his wails further.
Sal slowed. But didn’t stop. He should have. The bus would be there in a few minutes. But today he couldn’t. He shuffled on pass, much to the annoyance of the old lady who had glanced up with hopeful anticipation of having yet another epic moan to young Sal. ‘Shame,’ she thought, ‘such a nice, polite lad; such a good listener.’
Rounding the next corner, he encountered the smell of burnt oil, too-strong seasoning and dodgy chicken that was originally destined for the dog food factory, but Tanveer knew a bloke, who knew another bloke, who could divert a few crates of the not-so-white-anymore meat.
Nonetheless the in-aroma had bored its way into his nostrils already and had activated the saliva glands. Sal swallowed and jangled the change in his pocket, a reverberation in the pit of his admittedly empty stomach shuddered with misplaced hope.
Tanveer had spotted him and had waved. If he went in there now, he’d have to engage. Make chit-chat; berate politics, lament lamenting and tut tut the world as if we all, the ragtag occupants of an insignificant little fried chicken shop on an inconsequential street corner, knew any better.
As if Karan the Cabbie had all the answers because he had the local MP in the back once; as if Sam the Socialist was sincere about how he preferred Tanveer’s hot wings more than the big KFC’s on the High Street and how death to corporate capitalism would surely cure us; and as if Jamal the Jihadi (not really but he looked like one) actually could snap his fingers and sort everything – ‘wallahi azeem!’ – in just two days, if he was given all the authority.
Sal pressed on. As the evening chill started to whip up around him, he pulled the zip up tighter as if it could somehow travel beyond the top position it was already at. Resignedly he turned up the collar of the jacket, and then realised he had forgotten his scarf again as the collar simply funnelled the by-now icy air around his neck.
But Sal continued to walk. Anyway, not taking the bus, and resisting the awful fried chicken meant he’d saved a bit of money. Maybe he’d put it in the air-ticket-home fund. Or perhaps, more attainably, the buy-a-warmer-coat fund.
It was an hour and half’s walk. Sod it. The exercise would warm him up.
He saw the bridge. And in the distance he heard the rattle, rumble and rhythmic cracks of a tube train approaching on the lines below. He picked up the pace. When he reached the top he stopped and peered over the edge.
As the shroud of night had descended and turned down God’s dimmer switch, he could clearly see the well-lit cabin at the head of the train. He could see the driver, swigging from a mug. The tube train was slowing for the station behind him, but it would still be at a fair pace when it reached the bridge.
Sal looked at the track directly below. And hesitated for a moment; thinking, contemplating, pondering…
White flag! Cheat code! Let go! Abrupt. Well that escalated… huh? Pass go, do not take… What?! Wrong! No, no, not like this. Wasteful. What waste? As if this wasn’t a waste already? Low? How much lower was possible? Being somebody; being nobody. Rising above; crashing below. Stand and fight; lie squashed and shredded…
The driver was taking another sip. He’d never see it coming. Not his fault though. There… Grasp at that! C’mon. Why him? What had he done to deserve this. It wouldn’t be nice. Eek! Okay, it wouldn’t be fair. Trauma, therapy, terrible nightmares. What a legacy. That what you want?
Too late anyway. The train thundered past below.
Sal walked on. No. Sal shuffled on. Let’s be honest. Honesty was all that was left. Didn’t cost anything. Didn’t hurt anyone. None but the person being honest, that is.
Sal was home. Well, more accurately, home was there. Right there in front of him. But here’s that honesty again. It wasn’t really home. It was a place. He stared at the door. Within beckoned. Emptiness beckon. Haunting quietness beckoned. Deserted pantry beckoned.
His heart yearned. He could play old make-believe again. Voices imagined, not heard; food imagined, not tasted; love imagined, not felt.
Hours of solitude beckoned.
It started to drizzle. Sal looked up. ‘Yeah sure, perfect. Just what I needed. Sehi hai… chalo.’
Sal continued walking. He dismissed the simmering knot in his back, the shooting jolts up his calves, the shivering in his shoulders. He hunched and shuffled on.
‘Must keep going. No choice. No way out. Stick with it.’
And he hesitated for a moment; thinking, contemplating, pondering…
‘If this was a story, something cool would happen at this point,’ thought Sal. He looked up for a ray of light to descend and wash over him, but none did. He checked his phone – no they obviously still hadn’t got around to sending him that dream job offer yet.
He looked up and down the road. Stare as he might, he could not see the stroke-hit eccentric millionaire who, even as he breath his last in his arms, would bequeathed his fortune to stranger Sal because of course he would; because he would know that Sal was a good man, an honest man, a man who deserved so much more than his lot.
But none of this transpired. It continued to rain. It continued to get colder. He turned back. Went to a place called home. Collapsed in a thing called bed.
Next evening: ‘Okay Sal, see you tomorrow. Make sure to lock up before you leave!’
He hesitated for a moment; thinking, contemplating, pondering…