He drummed dried fingers on the bar and waited for his next drink: tonic water with ice and a squeeze of lime; he was three weeks sober on Wednesday. Each strand of taught DNA which comprised him hummed with the tension of remaining dry.
Don’t you dare fuck this up.
The glass was cold, wet and slipped sweetly into his palm. As he clasped it, he squeezed it; testing the resolve of the dimpled crystal container. It was a whisky tumbler, and its sinful rigidity mocked him; it was far stronger than he would ever be. He more closely resembled its contents. The barman eyed him and dawdled briefly. His black skin a contrast to a crisp white shirt. His friendly smile a mild annoyance.
Just another alcoholic. Another bruised and battered human who didn’t know when to stop.
He took a sip of the cool tonic and watched the barman wander away, to polish, or clean, or rearrange.
Or create a beverage of boundless beauty!
Ed grinned. The tonic was tart and crisp. It mingled with the taste of cigarettes on his tongue, before slipping unchecked down his throat. It was pathetically benign; an affront of nothingness that left him exactly how he had begun.
The blood-stained bandage, tightly wound around his palm, absorbed the condensation from the glass’s side, cooling the throbbing wound. He replaced the tumbler on the bar, closed his eyes, and continued his frenzied drumming on the over-polished wood.
“Tough day?” The barman had returned, his smile all teeth and gums and sarcastic eyebrows; he teased out disdain.
He took a long drag of the full fat tonic water and fingered the inside of his jacket for a cigarette. He gave the barman a look, a “get fucked” or “does it look like I had a good day?” kind of look but the bow-tied server remained, like a begging dog frozen in time; thirsting for gossip and tail-wagging at scraps of misery. He lit the cigarette and sat upright on the bar stool.
You need to sort your posture out, Ed. “Today is my wedding day.”
She smiled her quaint little smile that reminded him of his mother and he flinched. Every time. Her eyes were soft, pathetic, as they gazed up at his.
A Doe. Do re mi.
All of his thoughts seemed to hit an indeterminate buffer in his mind; the sperm of his mind thundering with indifference against the thick, spongy contraception before him. He couldn’t work out what it was that suppressed him. He didn’t care. He was suppressed and that would be how he ought to remain. Here, at the alter, dressed like a monied magician, all eyes, strained to popping, fixed on him and the woman he had deigned to take for his wife.
My wife. Trouble and strife. Fork and knife.
I’m cracking up.
His thick blood gulped in his throat as he shuffled his eyes back into focus.
This is actually happening.
Timing is a bitch. There’s no two ways about it. There’s a time to be born, undecided by yourself. You can’t just turn it on like you would a film, or a song. You’re thrown into the game of life without a chance to take a breath, or anticipate the oncoming emotional barrage of life. No wonder all babies are born crying. It’s the shock of absolution in a single moment. Existence being revealed beyond taught curtains like the burning sun on a hungover Sunday morning. There’s barely a chance to choke down some air, a new inconveniently necessary commodity, before we splutter into the arms of a complete stranger and wail for answers against a rigid wall.
Then everything else just happens. You can set an alarm. Or set a date, make plans. But the universe hates your rigid structures of time and space and stuff just happens. A plane crash. A sinkhole. A heart-attack. A cancer. A belch. An earthquake. A word. A love. A gust of wind. It’s all immeasurably random. It all just fucking happens. So we have two options; tighten our control, or relinquish it entirely. And that’s kind of the crux of my story.
Which brings me to death. The knife at our throats. The hooded beast at the door. The trip on the stairs. The sniff from the wrong bag. The mistimed cross of the road. It can be, and is, controlled. We kill each other, ourselves, we partake in death as much as life but, despite this, to believe that you have control over death, is wrong. Death is as roundly untouchable as birth. And all that mad shit in-between.
“Do you take Brook, to be your lawful, wedded wife?” The voice of the vicar was crisp and sensual. It lingered in the ears and slapped off the ample ceiling, into each forgotten crack and hole of the looming church. He looked at Ed sideways. It wasn’t an assumption, it was an assertion.
He might as well have said “Just say ‘I do’ and we can all carry on with our day.”
It was no longer an option. Which Ed knew was his own fault; he had allowed this to go on for too long. Two months, in fact.
Seven weeks, fours days, three hours and probably, now that we have sat through all of this nonsense, around forty-five minutes, in fact. But hey, who the fuck is counting?
“Edward?” Like a fleshy, gormless crane, the vicar’s nose pivoted towards him in all its shiny, archaic perfection.
Nobody calls me that anymore, chief.
The need to speak compelled him not to as his thoughts barked at the empty sky of his mind. Fruitless, pathetic sounds. Jane’s face shimmered with a sudden affliction as she realised what might be happening.
Surely she knew before? Surely she realised, when I quit the booze, quit the drugs,
quit the “good life”, that she was part of that? I know it’s not her fault. I just expect her to have known.
She smiled briefly, a sad smile of urgency. A smile that said “do something, you’re embarrassing us.” Us. Brilliant.
“Ed?” She spoke but Ed couldn’t hear her; her voice had joined the thunderous white noise of his own thought and he was relieved for the calm. He hoovered in a stream of dusty church air through his nostrils and walked straight back down the aisle and out of the church. A commotion had begun behind him, some shouts of concern, wonder, bafflement. Some hate as well from her family as they had front-row seats to their beloved daughter getting left at the aisle.
I’m such a prick.
Life is a chain of moments. We make decisions and we suffer their consequences.
“I like your tie.” She said through a shining smile. He had no idea where she had come from, she had simply generated out of the putrid air of the overfilled night club. But she was beautiful. Assertively so. Her face clutched onto its beauty with a vigour that seemed to be a constant exertion, as though she had earned her pretty face, and refused to let it go anywhere.
“Thanks.” Ed replied in return, as he tried to gather his drunken thoughts into a worthy response.
Say something clever, something insightful.
“Drink?” He said, realising immediately that it sounded as though he was afraid of the answer.
“Vodka and tonic. Please.” She smiled her empathy at him which only made him long for her more.
“Good choice.” He tapped his own glass and slurped the dregs as receded ice clattered against the inside of the glass and then his chin. He felt his cheeks redden as he turned to the bar to flag down a barman.
“Do you like this place?” Brook glanced over her shoulder, as if the walls themselves might take offence to her implied slight.
“No. First time.” Ed lied.
“Oh really? You look like a regular.” That smile again.
“I was dragged here by a friend who has since disappeared.” He feigned a cursory glance around the room for his friend that didn’t exist and then shrugged into his drink as he sipped. He could feel the alcohol in his eyes as they hesitated a millisecond before finding Brook’s.
“Me too.” She raised her eyebrows at him. “I fucking hate this place.”
“Me too.” He lied again. This place was not new to him, it was where he had spent the majority of his weekends (and some weekdays) for the last five years. The drink was cheap and the girls were in constant supply.
So why would I not come here? That’s the question you should be asking.
“You wanna get out of here?” That fucking smile.
They left together after finishing their drinks.
Don’t underestimate the power of a single moment, a single decision. A moment can make or destroy an entire life.
“Can I get you another, sir.” The barman’s face was frowning; a furrowed brow of concern greeted Ed from his reverie. “Another tonic water for you?” He nodded at the empty glass on the bar, beside the overflowing ash tray.
Are you taking the piss out of me?
Ed had been staring silently at the ground, chain-smoking, for long enough to arose the server’s concern.
“Why do I get the impression that congratulations aren’t in order?” The barman spoke as he poured Ed’s drink, his eyes never leaving his only remaining customer.
“You’re a bright man,” he said, straining to see his name-tag, “Joe.”
“I’m sorry.” He placed the drink down on the coaster, which was saturated with the relentless condensation of previous drinks.
You’re sorry? Thank fuck for that. We might as well all go home and have a lie down. You’re sorry! That makes all of this go away. All of this crumble to nothing. Congratulations, you’re sorry.
“You’re not from around here.” He continued. A statement of fact rather than a question.
Is that a question or are you talking to yourself.
I regret calling you “bright” now.
“Bad time to be in these parts. I’ll tell ya.” He was frowning into the sink as he polished a glass with an assertive vigour. “Sorry about that.”
“Ya know. This place, this country, it ain’t a good place to be right now.” Ed smiled back at him and said nothing.
No, this place is hell. I know. You don’t need to tell me twice. What do you want me to say here? What the fuck is there to say.
“They say Johnson is gonna investigate the cause of it all. The cause! Can you imagine what that might be?” Joe’s question was rhetorical. Ed’s head ached with the absurdity of the conversation. He just wanted to be left alone today.
“You’re damn right it is, sir. You’re damn right.” Joe seemed lost and wandered away with a pensive look on his face.
Ed brandished another cigarette from his pocket and ignited it with a long match before consuming it deeply.
What a fucking time to be alone in America.
“You’re gonna marry her? Are you insane?” The pub in Oxford was filled with drunks who scuffled and supped and collided as though bound by an invisible plasma. A new Beatles song blasted from behind the bar on the rickety record player.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Diamonds? How fitting.
Ed downed another pint of bitter as David balked before him.
I knew he’d give me a hard time about this.
“We’re in love. It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“No. It fucking isn’t.” His incredulity spattered Ed’s face with beer. “You’re supposed to have an engagement.” The word was unwieldy in his drunken mouth, making it sound foreign, almost perverse.
“We are engaged. Just for a short space of time.”
“No, you’re on a long date, mate. Three months is not an engagement.” David slouched back in his chair, a look of exasperation on his bloated, pale face. They’d been friends since university and he hadn’t changed one bit. A placid, doughy man with a lackadaisical attitude to life, but when he’d had a few beers he became the most opinionated man on the planet. Often, much to Ed’s amusement.
“So you won’t be my best man?”
“Buy me another beer and I’ll think about it.” Fuck it, it’s my round anyways.
“Why didn’t it work out? If you don’t mind me asking.” Joe was leaning on his oversized arms against the bar. The low lighting above him turned his cheeks a rich brown which reminded Ed of tree bark. He seemed enormous.
“I made some bad decisions.” Ed met his eye again and felt a warmth as the words left him.
Fuck, have I made some bad decisions.
“That’s what people do. And they do it well.” Joe smiled broadly and his bright white teeth shone proudly.
Like a shark.
Ed’s head started to feel displaced, as though alcohol was beginning to ease its way into his system; though he hadn’t consumed any. He hadn’t eaten all day, so he dismissed the thought. Food was the last thing he wanted now. He just wanted to wake up tomorrow, renewed and refreshed and somebody else.
I just want this day to cease, and for the world to be renewed in the morning. But I can’t possibly sleep, not feeling like this. This unhinged. This untethered.
He felt like he was floating away and, right now, Joe was the only thing holding him in place. The thought made him smile.
Big black Joe, my saviour.
“How long you been sober?” The question hit Ed in the centre of his chest and wiped the smile from his face. Joe’s eyes were measured, and all joy had left him as he weighed Ed.
Oh my word I need a drink.
“18 days tomorrow. Is it that obvious?”
“You look like a fresh born lamb, struggling to walk. Learning to live again.”
“That sounds about right.”
“It’s time to start again.”
“What?” The lights in the bar flickered and Ed noticed the music had stopped.
How long has it been empty in here? And silent? How long have I been sat here?
A suited man came bounding in the room, breathless, followed by two others dressed the same.
“We need help!” The man squealed between panted breathes, “somebody has been attacked. Please. Help.” Ed found himself standing up, walking towards the men and speaking, calmly, cooly.
“Where?” He followed them out of the room with purpose in his stride, “call an ambulance.” He shouted over his shoulder at the bar, but there was no sign of Joe.
A single moment can change everything.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Ed swerved the car out of the pub car park and it roared out down the road. It was his father’s Rover 2000 which he had borrowed without asking that morning. He had been enjoying his stag party at the local pub, exactly a month before the big day so as to allow for any shaved hair to grow back or broken bones to at least begin their mend. The engine growled and the sun cast itself meekly off the polished metalwork as he charged down the winding village lanes of home.
Towering over your head
The radio barked out The Beatles in a tinny, percussive rhythm; even at full volume it was barely audible over the drone of the puckering engine and brazenly churning tyres.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
A red phone box flashed passed on the left, a couple of teenagers crammed inside. Ed’s mind drifted to his wife-to-be. Brook, the woman of his dreams and of his future. He took a sharp left and the tyres screamed with the violence of exertion. Yells of distaste came from a nearby park. Ed grinned and he continued to accelerate between stone-built walls and plains of bounding green.
And she’s gone.
He turned hard left again and a wheel caught the curb; he wasn’t sure which.
Lucy in the sky-y with diamonds
The car, hinged at its front left, bucked and swerved, sending the right hand side hurtling forward.
Lucy in the sky-y with diamonds
The stench and scream of the sliding tyres was overwhelming, and then they caught some grip. The car flipped on its side.
Lucy in the sky-y with diamonds
Ed looked out of the window, briefly unaware of which way was up, and took a deep breath before the inevitable explosion of metal, concrete and pain.
Nothing happens by chance. Moments maketh the man.
“Where?” Ed called again, but he had lost the men he had intended to follow. He stood in the lodge reception, glancing from side to side, lost and bemused. His head still lurched with a drunken softness which was all too familiar. Though impossible.
What is wrong with me?
There was an easel next to the empty reception desk with clear, printed black writing on a white sheet of paper tacked to it:
Wedding reception guests for:
Mr and Mrs Edward Glass
Please make your way through to the:
He read the words with a thick knot in his stomach. He regretted not eating. And smoking so much. He could feel this day getting away from him. He could feel the bar he had just left calling him back, pouring him a VodkaMartini and making him feel so much fucking better. Or a damn strong Gin and Tonic. He could feel the pull of disengaging with the world. Then he heard a scream. A fractious, angry scream from out the front of the lodge. The double doors were held open, allowing a crisp mountainous breeze to roll in and out as it pleased. Beyond them was a pitch and perfect dark. He took a breath and walked out to allow the night to claim him.
The sky was filled with diamonds and it made Ed smile. A brief heartbeat of a smile, but still the nostalgic presence of the metaphor astounded him, however fleetingly. Wooden stairs led straight down from the open doors of the lodge and they echoed in the moonlight as he followed them to a thin, dusty path. Trees formed a crowd around him, smothering the fading light of night and creating a tireless blackness in every direction.
This is a bad fucking idea.
The scream was closer this time and almost made him turn and run back up the stairs, to the safety of the indoors. It was a female scream, undoubtedly, and it was very close. Somewhere within the sheer-dark woodland a woman needed his help.
Get a fucking grip, man.
Ed adjusted his collar and cuffs, stretched out his neck with a glance to the moon and the stars, and then took several bold steps into the darkness. The path became more and more narrow as he followed it; the moonlight tenderly caught its grey form as it slithered away into the vegetation. Branches snatched at his face and arms. Unseen rocks caused him to stumble and curse. The path bled into a clearing; a rough, circular pronouncement of slightly lightened rock. He squinted into the area, feeling motion and sensing something before him. And then he saw her. In a night-dress, cowering. Her pale hands over her face. A soft whimpering noise ushering from her throat. Brook? It can’t be.
“Help. Me.” She gasped, noticing Ed. The voice wasn’t Brook’s and gave Ed the most concise moment of relief before the bear rumbled into the clearing. It bounded towards the girl without hesitation.
What is that smell? Blood? Shit? Fear?
Mid-charge it halted. Ed must have gasped at the sheer size of it when it had loomed into his view; black-brown on sheer black. It was the size of a small van. Ed felt bubbles of nausea tickle the back of his throat as he stood there, terrified. The bear rounded on him; white eyes in a round, colossal head. The girl disappeared from view as the animal pushed itself, in one swift motion, onto its hind legs. The bear doubled Ed’s height and all light seemed to dissipate from the clearing. Its hot breath was sickly sweet; rotting flesh and hunger. Ed didn’t know what to do and so he did nothing. There were several seconds of silence, punctuated only by the bear’s grunted breathing, where the two mammals stared each other down. Then the bear lunged at him.
“You are lucky to be alive, Mr. Glass.” The doctor was tapping her clipboard as she spoke. Her hair was tied tightly in a bun on her head and she looked at him disapprovingly, and sparingly. “You are lucky to be alive. A couple of cracked ribs and a black eye is far less than you deserve.” His tongue felt thick in his mouth and made him nauseous.
Is this a hangover? Or concussion. Either way, it hurts like hell.
“I’m sorry.” He managed out of swollen, cracked lips before the doctor turned on her heel and marched away.
He turned to gaze out of the window; the tip of a building’s chimney poked up into view and beyond that a matt-grey sheen smothered an endless sky.
This is it. This is where I go sober. My life up until now has been framed by booze, and indeed almost ended because of it. Let alone who else I might have harmed.
Ed closed his eyes and felt sleep gather up around him. He knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix, an easy win. It was going to be damn tough. But he had to do it. He had to sober up, and start afresh.
Start a new life. For me. And for Brook.
Ed dove into the woods to his right and felt the weight of the bear thunder into the ground behind him. Branches seemed to usher him back, urging him toward a certain death, but he brushed them aside with wild, flailing arms and pushed through, deep into the black forest. The bear made a roar of disappointment, panic and exhilaration before following Ed. The trees bent, buckled and rolled as he tore through them, hunting his new, well-dressed prey.
The gap was closing between them. Ed could feel the air tightening behind him. The trees around him seemed to be tensing for a collision, for a seismic death amongst them. He stumbled. Ed reached out for a branch, for anything, but found only the fresh air of a restless night. And he fell. The bear was on him in an instant, as though waiting patiently for this moment. It reared up, hunched, growled, sniffed, and then came down; teeth and gums bared and primed. The teeth in the moonlight looked as long as Ed’s fingers.
In this moment of pure rage, Ed scrambled for anything with writhing arms. His hands found a cylinder of sorts beside him. He didn’t know its length, he could only guess by it’s weight that it was a few feet long. It didn’t matter now, it was all he had. He grasped it, groaning under its heft and, twisting his entire body, pointed it at the bear’s midriff. It was almost a glancing blow but the sound it made was both delightful and disgusting. It tore flesh and snapped bone and plunged deep into the bear’s chest. The air rushed out of the beast’s mouth in a wheeze. Its eyes widened and it started madly snapping his teeth, looking for some purchase, some revenge. The stick slipped on the ground and the bear tumbled forward. Ed reached up a hand instinctively to protect himself and the animal sunk its teeth deep into his flesh. Blood rained down on Ed’s chest and face with a hideous warmth.
Is that my already injured hand? Where did my bandage go?
The pain was sharp and made Ed’s head swim.
Don’t you dare pass out.
The bear fell to its left and Ed was able to shuffle away as it drew its last breath. The fence post had torn through its heart and now jutted up towards the moon like an accusatory finger. Ed collapsed in a heap and lost consciousness before noting once again the beauty of the sky. Lucy in the sky with diamonds…
When he woke, a crowd loomed over him in a burgeoning morning light. His eyes screamed with the exertion of navigating the brightness and his head ached; rigid and full, like a hangover. He pushed himself up into a crouch, groaning at the pain in his hand. His bandaged hand. His mind fluttered back and forth, placing the memory, cementing the thought.
Was my hand bandaged at the bar?
But the thought evaded him, fading like the dew which clung pathetically to everything.
“You are born, anew, my friend.” The voice was familiar, friendly. Ed covered his eyes to allow him to see and they met the smile of Joe. “Welcome back, Mr. Glass.” He was stripped to the waist. Khaki shorts hung at his midriff but his feet were bare. A long, shining machete casually protruded from his right hand, pointing at the floor. Behind him were several others, dressed the same: some white, some black, some old, some young. Each of them stared at him with wide, astounded eyes. Each clutching the same long blade with a startling indifference.
“Joe?” Ed’s voice was a croak of confusion and fatigue.
“Worry not. It is nearly over.” Joe walked with a casual gait to the prostrate bear; the fence post still reaching, with an almost comical erectness, up at the tree canopy. He bent down and began to whisper at length. Ed strained to listen but could not hear what was being said. A dozen sets of eyes continued to bore into his soul. He tried to ignore them; he kept his eyes on Joe, crouched and muttering like a madman. In a fluid motion, Joe raised his blade and plunged it into the belly of the fallen beast. It made a slurping sound as he withdrew it that made Ed keel over and wretch; he was suddenly aware of his profound thirst and hunger.
Joe approached, blood dripping machete extended out toward him. Ed raised a hand in helpless defiance as he tried to hold back vomit, but it was batted aside by Joe as he reached him.
“Look at me.” Joe’s voice was softer now, less brazenly American, nondescript. Like a white noise, it was soothing. Ed did as he was asked. He realised he was crying. Joe ran his thumb down the side of the machete, through the blood and gore which clung to it with a dogged assurance. He then placed his thumb of Ed’s forehead as he began to mutter inaudibly again. The people behind him copied the words, the refrain, as though it were as normal as breathing. The big, wet thumb ran across his forehead, back and forth, and the down the bridge of his nose. The blood was still warm and made Ed shiver. Joe then stepped back and smiled his big, bold smile. “It is done.” The crowd burst into applause, which startled Ed.
It was then that he saw her. Removed from the rest of the gathering, at the rear of the group and still dressed in the white night-dress. The lady he had saved from the bear, albeit accidentally. She wasn’t applauding like the others, just wearing a half smile and gazing at Ed with a look of wonder. She looked nothing like Brook in the morning sunlight. Her long brown hair was gathered in a bun atop her head and she had a look a indifferent dishevelment about her. Before he could say a word, Joe turned and gestured to the rest. “We must go. There is much to be done.” He turned once again to Ed, “Live well, friend.” Ed stared with wonder as they dispersed into the woods which surrounded them, with syncopated movement like birds in a sea breeze. Within seconds he was alone again.
He walked for a while, not entirely sure where to go. He was reluctant to return to the lodge to gather his things, knowing that a fresh start needed all previous ties to be cut. Nothing there was worth returning for. After an hour he reached a clearing atop a cliff edge. The sea, hundreds of feet below, was broiling in the growing heat of mid-morning and scores of birds wailed a cacophony into the epic expanse of water. He breathed in the salted air hungrily and studied the curvature of the scenery. It was raw, absolute beauty and he drank in every last drop.
This is the perfect moment for a renewal.
The voice in his head felt clearer now; more controlled.
Let’s begin again.
“Thank you.” He said to nobody in particular as he turned and headed back inland to commence a new life and an endless stream of perfect new moments.