Gathered at the old-town church were families belonging to money, families in squalor, singletons, the old, the young and even younger, more than one priest, the last surviving businessmen, out of town folk, the only two police officers, the jobless, the hopeless, the kin of the deceased, and towards the back of the church, propped against the baptism altar were Mike and Tess. For the first time since arriving Mike was unequipped, his hands cold, one encased inside the other. Tess brought her tools with her, sullenly scribbling occasional notes.
An open casket, beautifully bright antique oak, the inside of which was emblazoned with fine baby blue silk and white ribbons. Inside lay Bradley Jukes, a young deaf boy who had recently been struck by a bullet not meant for him. The shot had burned through his knitted cotton sweater, and penetrated his chest a couple of inches above his heart. He bled out within minutes, splintered bone catalysing death, football escaping down the street. Gunshots continued to sound and bullets continued to fly overhead whilst Bradley’s ginger hair sagged against the curb, and his eyes gazed at a deep blue sky, turning grey, then black, then gone. This battle was the peak of weeks of mounting violence between two families. Mike’s reports on the increasing number of gruesome deaths occurring in his once-home town included speculations on who was responsible for the violence. Theories ranged from a lone killer (after seeing the first dead on Christmas Day, tied to a lamppost halfway down an abandoned street, stabbed fifteen times) to a group of thugs intimidating the town and taking control from the already weakened police force (this theory following three murders in January, each victim being associated with a prominent crime riddled family). Bradley Jukes, or rather, his death, had illuminated the full truth. Two families had run riot over the past couple of months, belligerent, brutalising, looting and killing. Each murder case was related to a family feud. With the diminished police force and lack of interest or even care for what happened here, the carnage wouldn’t fade away any time soon. The young, now dead boy belonged to neither family. Bradley was not the only person killed in the violence, but he was innocent and to the remaining townsfolk, his death was the only one that mattered.
From where Mike stood, Bradley looked like a miniature doll. A toy that had been preserved for decades inside a plastic encasing, whose hearty colour had only just started to pale. A stark contrast to the battered, scruffy boy who used to run between cruel streets, grazing skin and bone on the harsh concrete edges of the town. Guarded by the grace of God from the terrifying noises that rattled through day and night. This truer image rested in the minds of the townsfolk, an effulgent boy, tribute to the last residues of goodness that existed here. That day, as the streets lay bare, the only noises that could be heard for miles around were echoes of hymns, cries, wails and speeches escaping from the church doors. From the 84” Pipe Mill surrounded by seal littered marshes, to the football fields, clifftops, dune-guarded beaches and everything in between, not a soul stirred. Together, fragments of a once tight knit community mourned a dead little boy, and like an unshakeable fog, grief descended on a place, now lost and shattered.
Mike found himself on Steatly Beach, a spot he used to frequent in his earlier days before leaving for the city. Days when he would purposefully miss the school bus and saunter around town, looking for an interesting story or a character to follow. Confused stares and whispered remarks would tail him across town until he would become bored of judgements, and retreat to the beach. There was no doubt in his mind that he was an outcast, a strange shadow that lurked in the shopping centre, out of the way of other kids. He became very good at sneaking around the town in his teens, and would often follow strangers from a distance and write reports on their meanderings. Routinely, he would fill in the gaps of the story with interesting scenes and unusual behaviour, such as murders, thefts, rituals or fights. This in part helped him land a job out of town. Over the years he built up a portfolio of well organised, impressively penned stories, written as journalistic reports. It was not just in this capacity he found himself back in town, however. Feeling it a duty, like something he owed this place, he set out not just to report crimes and the general feeling surrounding them, but to try and aid the punishment of those responsible, an attempt to revive hope and pride. The day he left for the city to start his career he was 17 year old. A young man was murdered brutally in the dead of night, and was found in the wealthy suburban park on the far side of town. Mike couldn’t decide if this was a missed opportunity or an omen to take leave. In the end, he rested on the latter. Reflecting on his decision now, he couldn’t help feel he had abandoned home in a time of need. Stretched out on the dune, the feeling of defeat made his shoulders feel taut and dense. A young, sweet boy lay dead, and with him, ruins of Mike’s past.
After a while emptiness filled his head, save for the occasional flash-shot of earlier preceding’s, and Bradley, forever young in his toy box. What confused Mike the most was his current apathy. Since returning back to his once-home, he struggled to fully comprehend the nature of his visit. Partially due to the gruesome facets of it, having to write stories on a number of inhabitants who had transcended to the only peaceful square mile of the town: the graveyard. Partially because the place he found himself was a fragment of its former self, a malicious ghost that terrified the people who took up residence there. Mainly, he struggled to fully realise the depression that came with his current topic of work, for he had no room left for sorrow in his tangled mind. Grief of a different kinds both pulled him to the town and pushed him away from his residence in the city. Preceding months had persisted of days on the couch, curtains pulled, moulded crumbs going un-swept. Solitude once brought him comfort, but during this time he yearned for the person who had shown him different. A woman, intelligent and relaxed, invaded his life for a year in which time ‘him’ and ‘her’ became ‘them’. His smell and her small became ‘our smell’. Days after their anniversary, she decided to leave. Images of her black hair nestled on his pillow like spilled ink, and their sun-sprinkled afternoons beside the window, warm lips and soft cheeks intertwined. At least, that’s how he kept remembering it. All that comfort, his shelter from the rain, had vanished from his life and followed her out the door.
He looked down the beach from the dune he was sat upon. Dusk was yet to settle but its impending arrival had cleared the air, so crisp now that each breath felt intoxicating. Upon the sand manifested footsteps and paw prints. Memories of his childhood often evaded him, willingly the case. However, something now did occur to him as he sat dreary eyed and heavy minded. An image in his mind, clear as the endless white sky above his head. Thirteen year old, he woke one winter morning. He was surprised to see his mother was awake and eating breakfast. This was the first time he had seen her out of bed and sober before midday since his parent’s split that summer. He accompanied her that morning to take the dog for a walk, and headed for Steatly Beach. Conversations of his mother’s old job, her wedding, her pops and her friends ensued along the way. The backstories to a woman he had both feared and pitied for the last six months made her seem soft and human. It was as if the sour, stale mornings of Mike staring at the grey drooping mouth of his mother from her doorway, checking for signs of breath or movement, had never happened. Once they got to the beach, Mike decided to fall back away from his mother and climb atop the promenade that arrowed out to the North Sea. His mother went ahead, and for the first time he can ever recall seeing, started to run. She dug her mighty heals into the sand, surfing with the grains, all the while the dog bounced up around her calves. Frost blanketed grassy knowles above the dunes, and he could see his mother’s warmth, radiating from her in clouds of vapour. Mike stood, still as the wooden beams around him, trembling in the sting of wind. Back and forth she ran laughing, squealing, and gasping for breath. He could see her now turning and recognising him from a distance, she knew who he was, and he finally knew who she was, or could be. The image singed into his mind, and that winter afternoon he lay beside his mother, breathing her air and drifting off in to a simultaneous slumber.
Glassy eyes soon gave way as Tess had joined him on the dune. ‘I saw your car.’ She announced.
‘You used to come here too?’ He was glad to see her.
‘Every now and then, mainly to drink with older boys. Here, I got you this.’ In her plump palm lay a joint, rolled crookedly, appealing nonetheless.
‘I’m good’ he said with a shake of the head. Tess struck a match, letting the flame numb her fingers before waving it out and puffing out a cloud of pungent smoke. ‘Do you know why it was I came back here?’
‘What, you mean it wasn’t for the beautiful architecture, culture and myriad of murders?’
‘Surprisingly, no. My Dad died, just before Christmas.’
‘Oh, so you were visiting the family.’ This second stab at humour, despite what he had just said, made Mike chuckle. By now Tess knew how and when to make him laugh, his family often being a subject she could work with.
‘Yeah, guess I was. You know I never mentioned it because I was too focussed on this job.’ he paused, as if wanting to admit the other, real distraction in his mind ‘To be honest I barely saw the man, he left when I was 12.’
‘Bastard.’ Jennifer muttered as the smoke strangled her breath.
‘No! Sorry. I mean your old man, doesn’t sound like a great Dad, having left you.’
A quick smirk curled the corner of Mike’s mouth. He knew who her insult was aimed at but wanted to catch her off guard. He exhaled deeply and his face rested again. ‘Actually, he was.’ His voice involuntarily trembled toward the end of this utterance, and Tess immediately turned to face him, her eyes solemn now and the mood dampened. ‘I remember one time when I was about 10 year old. I had this friend, Jason Wren, cheeky little fucker, but in all honesty one of my only true childhood friends. Anyway, we went to this club, a gaming club where you took in these little figurines and built armies, and the armies would battle each other. There was spacemen, aliens, futuristic soldiers, all sorts. My Dad, he saw that I was into these things and decided to build me a castle out of little pieces of wood and cardboard.’ He chuckled in appreciation saying this. ‘He was about halfway through when me and Jason first went to this club. So we get there, handful of figurines, and immediately we see that there’s adults there with vast collections, grown men with immense miniature armies. We stood no chance! Jason suggested we take a walk to the shop that sold all of the expansion sets, and steal a few to help bolster our ranks. I was unsure, so he said he would steal them if I kept lookout. That I did, and that day’ he announced almost proudly ‘we won a few battles. I returned home and completely forgot to hide the stolen figures from my Dad. That night he found them, called me downstairs and got me to confess. He told me that the game was up, the castle was getting binned and that he was going to pick me up from school the next day and take me to the shop to apologise. I cried and cried and told him how sorry I was, but he never budged.’ He paused, took the joint from Jennifer’s mouth and wedged it between his lips, then continued. ‘School the next day was torture, I was worried sick all day, just thinking about how I was going to face the store owner and my Dad. He picked me up, and I didn’t dare talk to him, I was so ashamed. Normally I was good as gold, bit of a Mammy’s boy in truth. Anyway, he drove straight past the shop, and I kept quiet, thinking he’d forgot. When we got home he disappeared into the garage, having said nothing in the car. Next morning he shouted me downstairs. I walked in the kitchen and there was a completed wooden castle, painted brick-like, draw-bridge and all. Inside the castle were new figures, not the stolen ones but a few more fairly decent ones. I was so confused, I said “I thought you weren’t finishing the castle because I was bad?” He sat down and asked me “Why did you cry so much, and why have you been so sad since yesterday?” I thought about it and told the truth “Because I feel guilty and I let you down.” He smiled and explained that he had took the figures back to the shop, but picked up some new ones. He said that he could tell I was sorry for what I did, and was glad I was honest. Me feeling so bad the whole time was punishment enough. He said “we all mistakes, but if you learn from them and don’t let it happen again, you’ll make me proud.” He was like that you know? When I was younger. His moral compass was sharp, he had integrity. A few years later he left, and a few years after that so did I. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stay in this place, with my Mam slowly sinking into her bed. So I left. I just up and left and now look at this place. Everyone here is a prisoner, apart from there’s no prison guards to keep order. Guess I don’t blame my Dad for leaving back then, but why the fuck did he have to get buried here?’
He waited for Tess’ response and when it didn’t come he felt a heavy force pound his chest, an invisible punch. He folded up, wrapped his arms so tight around his stomach he could hear his muscles strain like old rope, and he started crying. Tears that had been stored in the pit of his soul now rushed to the surface. Tess could do nothing but hold him on that dune, as she too wept beneath the darkening sky of forgotten town.
The case was still ongoing, but Mike had returned to the city and nestled for a few days in his apartment, having sent what he decided would be the last of the reports to his editor. Before setting off home he visited his Mother. Luckily she had never changed the locks to her flat, so his old key still worked. He found her asleep in front of the fire, as she was often found these days. He checked the bins, no empty bottles. On the counter he eyed prescription medicine, a hint of relief. Waking her would have caused more fuss than it was worth, she had forgotten his face and would have questioned his presence. Before leaving, he noticed a curled and smoked picture, nestled on the embers of the fire. Still hot in his hand, he studied it for a while and remembered what it was, a snap taken from a family retreat to The Lakes. He was positioned in the middle, parents either side with their arms around him, protecting him, happy. The blaze had cropped the photograph. Where his parents once stood there was now incandescent edges emitting smoke, and only he remained, a young boy, scruffy, alone. He collected the ashes from the fire where the memory had burned, and spread the remnants of what was on the beach. They carried in the wind and swirled toward the sea, entwined relics of an old place, making their escape. He buried the wounded photograph of himself beneath the sand, and left that place forever.
He had kept in contact with Tess, even invited her to the city for a night of food and drink, an offer she had snatched at. The night came, and with it a flurry of preparations. Steam billowed over the shower curtain, ashen specks of hair lined the plug hole, and sweet pockets of deodorant circulated the apartment. He was running late so had to quickly decide between jumper or shirt, and in the end opted for both. Keys scratched his coffee table as he slid them into his hand and opened the door. He looked back and paused. Under a year ago, she had stood in the same position looking back to where he fixed now. The last sweet scent of her caramel and coffee tainted breath hung in the doorway as he sat emotionless on the couch. Now, as he had then, he let her go. Swinging the door shut, he headed out beyond a curtain of darkness, into a new and unknown future.