On the inside, looking out

There she was again, just like countless times before.  Buckled in, stuck in, and no way of getting out.  She could look out, though, from her prison, her life.  Look out, and either go over the day she’d planned, or…

What’s that?  A bird flying too high?  A bit of the plane?  She pressed herself against the side of her seat, to get a more certain view.  Slowly coming into focus, she realised she was looking out at a sky-diver, face pushed back, arms wide, legs bent.  She looked around the passengers but everyone had their eyes down, in on themselves, just as she had been.  The lesson was hers alone, it seemed.

The diver dropped, and she was left wondering whether he had ever been there at all.  Whatever was real, she knew that her life was about to change, that she was about to change her life.  No more being stuck where she didn’t want to be, no more letting the momentum carry her places she didn’t want to go, no more watching other people living while she just survived.  Her life, on the outside, was one to envy – perfectly performed, immaculately presented.  But climb inside, and order falls away, confusion rises up.  Someone, perhaps something, else was controlling every move, every decision she made.  Not any more.  From this ridiculous moment, she was going to break out.

She was going to sky-dive.

By the river

He had no idea why he was there, or how he had got to that place.  He’d been there before, but not with these people.  He prided himself on his independence, on his inscrutability.  But not with them.  They were able to unlock something in him that he liked keeping shut.

 

“Smile”.  He made a face – faces like that were safer than real ones.  What was it that was different.  What could they see in him.  The river was slipping past, and his guard was going with it.  The buildings were immoveable.  All of a sudden, he was not.

 

He had raced through his life at the rate of knots – never stopping to experience it, always moving on, always seeking something more, but incapable of pausing to check if he’d already found it.

 

“Come on”.  He looked down at two small hands tugging at his, two small faces.  These were the ones making him stop.  These were the ones who were going to change him.

Saiorse

In a dingy North Belfast kitchen, a nine year old girl is making up a bundle.  From her practised movements, you can tell she has done this before.  But still her fingers are trembling.  She butters two pieces of bread, taking care not to tear them with the hardened butter and knife.  She breathes through her mouth as she fills the sandwich with corned beef, sickened by the smell.  Frightened of getting scalded, she slowly makes a flask of coffee.  At every stage, she stops.  No-one comes in.

Clearing a small space on the crowded worktop, she lines up the sandwich, the flask, an apple and a tub of milk, and leans back to survey her preparations.

She must not forget anything.  He would never say, but she would feel as though she had failed him.

Her mum rushes past, unseeing, running out to her second shift of the day.  The front door slams.  The little girl carefully wraps up her meagre preparations, and glancing both ways, steps out into the street.

———————————————————————–

Every morning, all day in fact, he presses his face against the wooden boards, squints through their cruelly narrow slits, and looks out at the living.  The street is mostly abandoned, but now and again he catches a glimpse of somebody leading the life he wants, the opposite of the one he has.

Today he is looking out at a father half-running, half-walking beside his little girl on her rickety purple bicycle.  She is still learning: stabilisers correcting her jerky steering, brakes squeezed too violently and too often.  Her dad stays close, hands at the ready to stop her should she fall, shouting
the universal encouragement, ‘Keep pedaling, don’t stop now, you don’t need to brake when you’re on the flat, you’re doing great!’

The watching prisoner joins in the ups and downs of the ride, his heart heavy with the realisation of missed chances, uncreated memories.  He pushes back from the window, not feeling the sharp pain of a wooden splinter in his hand, only knowing the dull punch of his ruined past, and his impossible desire for a different future.

With a sigh, he steps from one rotting floorboard to another, and sits down with a pillow.  Unwrapping the bundle, he takes out his Browning, empties the barrel, and begins to clean it.  This is the most nervous he feels all day, and his body is tense, ready to spring up at the slightest noise.

There’s a knock on the door.  He freezes.  Five light but certain bangs. He loads his gun and creeps backwards, leveling it at the door.
“Daddy? It’s me.”

———————————————————————–

“Wind down the window, for pete’s sake.  I’m suffocating here”
“Can’t.  Armoured glass, remember.  Just breathe it and get over yourself”

The two men, little and large, conscience and no conscience, sit in their dusty Ford Sierra and wait.

“I hate this, Davy.  It’s not right.”
“What, the smoking?”
“No, you fool, this whole plan.  It stinks of underhanded, stupid cruelty.  I’m a father myself, and this – well, this is plain wrong.  There’s got to be another way”
“Listen to you, Mr Self-righteous.  The man is a cold-blooded murderer.  He’s killed people in their own beds, planted bombs in God knows how many public places, and now he’s hiding like the rats in the scum lining this street.  He’s no father.  He’s lost the right.  And don’t you forget it.  You can’t.”
“I know.  I know all that.  It’s just…It’s the girl.”
Davy lights another cigarette, inhales, and sighs with exasperation.  “Well, she’ll thank us in the end”
His partner opens the car door, and starts to get out, choking.
“What are you doing?”  Davy leans over and hisses, “Get back in!  You’ll wreck everything. He got away from us before, and I’ll be damned if we lose him again.”

Stephen slumps back onto his seat, defeated, trapped.

“There’s no way out, is there.”
“Nope.”

“There she is!  Look!  It’s D-Day!    We have you now, Seany-boy, we have you now!”

Davy pulls out his gun, eyes lit, wheezes coming fast.

Stephen says nothing.

Slowly the car creeps out of its hiding place, and crawls past the boarded-up houses, staying a careful distance behind the unknowing, daddy’s girl.

———————————————————————

Saiorse moves to pass over Sean’s lunch, but he has turned away, edging along the wall towards the boarded window.  She giggles at his strange movements, then tails off when she sees his hand raised to silence her.
Suddenly, he grips the boards and ducks.
“Daddy? What are you doing?  Is that a gun?  Why…?”
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to go.  I’m sorry, you’ve got to leave now.  Right now.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”
He presses his mouth to her head, then grips her arm with his free hand and nudges her towards the door.   She looks in his eyes, clouded mirrors of her own, and knows she has to do what he’s asking, just like she’s always done.
Sean’s only freedom slips from his grasp, turns and starts to run.  As she goes, she catches sight of two men heading towards the building she has just left, but she doesn’t let herself stop to watch.  Somehow she knows that she wouldn’t want to.
Her breaths come hard and fast, roaring in her ears, drowning out the sound of someone shouting her name.  Although for years, her memory of that moment will echo with her daddy’s voice.

Saiorse runs on, shivering, through filthy dereliction, tears lining her face like prison bars.  Her head is weighed down.  She does not see the blue skies or the soaring birds.  She does not notice her friend and her new purple bike.  All she sees is black.  Beaten, she slows to a heavy walk, and then, she stops.
Still looking down, she focuses on the crushed bundle that was her daddy’s lunch, and something inside her thuds.
When she catches sight of the metal bin beside her, she considers it for a brief moment.  She shakes her head.  This is all she has left of him now.
Clutching her devotion, the little daughter lifts her chin, rubs off her tears and heads back to an empty home.

The BMW driver

He’s a sharp dresser – tailored navy suits, thickly knotted ties, chunky cuff-links and shined shoes.  He drives past me every morning in a streamlined silver BMW on his way to work; at least I assume that’s where he is going.  Most likely a banker, too slick to be a medic and not sharp-featured enough for a lawyer.  He weaves deftly, unconcernedly, between the lines of traffic, driving as though the class of his car deserves the obeisance of all the lesser Clios and Polos he passes.  If I were closer, I think I would choke on the smell of Old Spice, and hear the dulcet tones of Radio 4.  Nothing can rile this man in his suited-up, car-encased shell.

And yet, how is it possible that I see him every day?  There are no mansions near me, or classy bachelor pads.  The housing estate is not old enough to contain a refurbished Victorian treasure.  It is not on the way to anywhere important in the eyes of a man who drives a BMW.  Then one day, I am walking along the road at an earlier time and I see him.  Not in his car, not in his suit.  Standing in the drive of a terraced house, wearing shorts, washing an old Volkswagen.  Fondly watching him from the doorway is an old lady.

The shell is off, and what lies beneath is the remarkable, surprising love of a son for his mother.

The yummy mummy

She cries in the shower most mornings, before the baby is awake.  Once out, she dries her tears off, buttons smart clothes over her sadness, and paints a love-filled marriage over her gaunt, bruised features.  Taking a deep breath, she breezes through the chaotic opening scene of her day as a mother, barely noticing any subtle, undoubtedly precious differences in her growing child from one day to the next.  A cry or a smile halts her momentarily, and she knows that she should be more happy than this, that she is trapped within a showcase life that most detached observers probably envy.  If they only knew.

A perfunctory kiss, a harsh ‘make sure you get your story straight’ hissed in her ear, and under the jealous gaze of her neighbour, she cheerily waves her husband off to work.  “What is my story this time?” she frantically asks herself as she bundles her wee girl into her buggy.  Then, forcing a pleasant expression, she briskly marches down the road, glossy blond pigtail swinging nonchalantly, heels clipping confidently.  To people looking out from coffee shop window-seats she looks like her life is as co-ordinated as her outfit, and as smooth as her hair.  Inside, she is broken.  She walks with a sense of purpose, but inside she is lost.  She steps in to the parent and toddler group, heart pounding, face serene.  Her strategy is working.  Nobody dares to break through her unapproachable exterior.  She doesn’t need a story.  The part she plays so well conceals the violent truth she endures behind the scenes.