Alex watched a large brown fly circle the sticky perimeter of his glass, and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The heat was stifling, and his focus had long since shifted from his parents’ conversation to the distant, silver spatter of the municipal fountain on the far side of the smouldering plaza. He imagined himself beneath its aquamarine deluge – feeling the cool water sweep into his armpits, and slick down, across the backs of his knees. He fancied he could smell the scent of chlorine and pennies from where he was sat, but the fantasy soon fell apart in the heat of the airless day.
He turned his attention back to his parents. His father was three minutes into one of his recapitulated monologues on how the game had all changed since the 1970s, and how Alex’s generation couldn’t possibly hope to recreate such a prodigious era. From the bits and pieces that he had tuned into, Alex knew that his father had already covered the problems with digital refereeing, and obscene player pay packets – “It just beggars belief, son.” – and would soon circle back to good old-fashioned love of the game.
The night before, it was supposed to be Lucy’s turn to close up the shop, but she’d had to nip off early because the baby had the croup, and Tim had a work thing to go to. I’d offered to do it for her, because I actually quite liked the silence; the soundlessness of the shop floor as order is once again restored. Like a big jigsaw. In a way, I thought it would do well to prepare me for the following morning. Something practical, to take my mind off things.
At closing time, Arthritic Maggie had said Rather you than me, petal, and asked if I had plans for the weekend. How’s your fella, the one from Hull? She’d asked, and I’d told her he’d gone back home for a while because things around here were too depressing. So, he went back to Hull, of all places? She’d laughed. I laughed too. Why not, I thought.
She had met David online when he, a mutual friend of an old colleague, had sent her a friend request. Following what had been a taxing, if not entirely tedious, day of processing innumerable forms, she had returned home to find the little figure in the top right corner of the home screen was coloured red, proffering a tiny speech bubble containing the single number ‘1’. It wasn’t the case that this alone had taken her by surprise, or had stirred any greatly anticipatory emotions within her. She was used to friend requests, from distant cousins, neighbours, and the like, though most often from middle-aged colleagues who, having recently discovered their own effervescent online presence, would proceed to forward video compilations of dogs falling into swimming pools, and grainy, garish reproductions of inspirational quotations from pulp fiction writers. But David was different: a stranger, a spark of promise amidst the quotidian hum of the everyday. She knew at once that she would accept the request, but humoured her shy sense of dignity by scanning his profile briefly, as if to vet the man at the other end of it, flicking through profile pictures and noting which school he had gone to, before sending her response.
After she had accepted, she fed her cat, folded some laundry, and completed the minutiae of the quiet evening, before getting ready for bed. That night, whilst brushing her teeth, she looked up at her face reflected in the small oval mirror that hung above the sink. She had never been considered a beauty, even in her youth, but she fancied that her face still retained something of the girl that came before the woman. She was grateful for her mother’s high cheekbones, which, even now, seemed to beat back against the inevitable pull of gravity, keeping her jawline from drooping – though her own aging had never truly disturbed her, as it had others.
He had made her a CD. Initially, he thought about making a tape, providing a useful segue into discussions about old sound systems, a topic about which he knew a lot. He imagined how this vintage gesture might be charming, and give way to his being able to tell her things she might not already know, like how hi-fi is an actually an abbreviation of high fidelity, or how to tighten the belt inside a record player. He thought she might like that. She seemed to like learning.
He recalled, on more than one occasion, her having mentioned almost winning the pub quiz at her local, and she had seemed interested in telling him some of the answers she hadn’t known. Did you know that? She had asked. Sometimes he had, but he never let on.
I killed a fox, last week. I hadn’t meant to, only, once it had begun to drag its one rank hind leg from under the dogwood and across the lane, I was already going at around forty or fifty, and I just didn’t see it. Jack did, even from the back seat, and, just prior to the moment of impact, I heard a soft ‘fff’ noise come from his mouth, as the full horror of the impending collision was laid bare to him.
I’d picked him up from school only an hour or so after I’d checked out of the clinic. He had been reading one of the books we bought him for Christmas: the hardback annuals full of facts and trivia and records, of men with eyeballs that pop out of their skulls, and women with nails like beige coils of measuring tape. He’d been trying to show me something, in the car.
As we stopped to get out and check the now mutilated orange carcass spread across the road, it occurred to me that I might have missed my chance to swerve because I’d been looking at Jack in the mirror.