Read by Cliff Chapman
You could hear yourself think in Wapping. It was peaceful, everything as it should be – no thronging streets like Whitechapel or Shoreditch. In his top floor purpose-built apartment (not flat – not in Wapping), the traffic was barely a hum. That's why he had moved here – the old had been swept away. The facades might acknowledge the past with the gloss-painted pulleys idling under the eaves but that was just for effect, suggesting an urban grittiness that Ian was glad no longer existed.
And then, one morning, everything slipped.
It was already warm, even for June. They’d said this morning it would be a record-breaking day but Ian had rolled his eyes when he’d heard the reporter’s gleeful tones warning of melting tarmac and high pollution levels. But here he was at 8am, with sweat seeping out of his armpits.
He crossed Brewhouse Lane and from nowhere a man – drunk he assumed, lurched towards him. Ian held his ground and tried not to overreact as he raved and threatened, and when he finally staggered off, Ian wiped his forehead, checked his watch and picked up his pace. Two unsettling incidents already, bad luck came in threes they said and then he scolded himself for such irrational nonsense.
Then it happened, just a few yards down Wapping Lane, a truck driving too fast swerved and braked hard to avoid a bike and with a roar and huge cloud of dust, concrete blocks crashed out of the back onto the pavement in front of him. He leapt back, instinctively covering his head. The dust coated his jacket and got into his throat making him cough and splutter. He opened his eyes, but his lashes were heavy.
"Jesus Christ mate, are you OK?"
The truck was straddling the road, the tail-gate hanging off by one hinge. Ian could hear the driver’s words but his ears still seemed to be full of a sound like the sea. A camera's flash went off in his face, and a shop assistant was asking him questions. He shook his head; no he didn’t need help, and yes, he really was fine. Then the wail of a siren cut the air and then another. He backed out of the melee and stood in a doorway away from all the fuss.
He brushed off his trousers as best he could, and tipped out particles of grit that had made their way into the silky lining of the pockets. He could have been killed, he thought, wiping his neck with a tissue. But it was over. He was here, he was alive, and he had a meeting to go to. He took a couple of deep breaths and stood up. His legs were still trembling a bit, but that was just the adrenaline kicking in. Crossing the street which was now a hubbub of people and vehicles, he made his way up Wapping Lane to his office.
He slipped past Reception without bothering to explain what had happened. He had a heavy day lined up as usual. At least it would keep his mind off the morning’s events. Once he got home it was a different story. He cooked himself a light meal in his cool metallic kitchen but couldn’t eat it. He entered the calm beige lounge and jumped suddenly when he saw a flash from the corner of his eye. He had to rest against the door for a moment until his legs stopped wobbling. He went to bed late but still had difficulty sleeping. He woke up at 3 in an explosion of coughing, convinced he was choking to death. This was not normal.
The following day, his car repaired, he drove to work, happy to be in his air-conditioned BMW listening to Classic FM even if it was for only five minutes. But when he went out for a walk at lunchtime, as he always did, he had difficulty negotiating the street. He found himself trying to hug the walls, hurrying across the roads until the next shop-front appeared. He headed for the nearest cafe and took a seat in the far corner. He needed time to think. The waitress came over, her sandals slopping against the floor.
“What can I get you?” she said.
While he was pondering the door clanked open. He jumped.
She raised her eyebrows “Shall I bring you a camomile tea, it calms the nerves.”
He nodded and pushed the unread menu towards her, his heart still galloping. He couldn’t go out, not yet. He’d felt strange out there. His throat was dry, his skin was itchy and there was a Morse code tick in his eye every time he focussed on something. He felt picked on, marked out by some unseen hand. He cast his mind back over the last few weeks, trying to think of anything bad or underhand he’d done. He tutted to himself, he was just being foolish. If accidents just happened to bad people half of London would be buried under rubble. He left some coins on the table and went out.
The sun was dazzling. Everything had become disordered, from quiet Wapping to the sun itself. He moved to the edge of the awning. He need only take one step. He hesitated, and wiped the perspiration from his eyes. Two children on skates hurtled by: he stepped out and looking several times he crossed the road. He headed for a small park, where he could rest until it was time to get back to work.
On a bench just ahead of him a man was sleeping, one arm was flung across his chest. With a sinking heart, he realised it was the same chap who’d bothered him yesterday. He thought back to the moment he’d suddenly appeared, his hand balled-up ready to thump him. He’d stood still, waiting for an opportunity to escape. It had felt like a long time, but probably had only been seconds. Then he was struck by a sudden thought. If he hadn’t stopped, if he’d just walked on like others had done, chances are, he would have been right under that load of rubble when it fell. So, effectively, this vagrant had saved his life. Ian was a rational man, but he knew with absolute certainty what to do. He must reward this man - make an offering to appease the Fates.
Forgetting he was supposed to be wary of traffic, he ran across the road to the off licence. He paid for a large bottle of Jack Daniels and darted back, dodging a black cab this time, and barely noticing he’d done it. The driver punched his horn and gave Ian the finger.
He hurried back through the park. What would he do if the old fellow had gone – but he was still snoring on the bench, his hands crossed on his chest like a corpse. Ian hesitated. Should he wake him and give him his reward, thank him? - given his behaviour yesterday that did not seem like a good idea. But he was loath to leave the bottle on the bench in case someone else came along and stole it. No, he would slip it into one of his pockets with a note explaining what it was for and then he would leave him alone. He had a momentary vision of the tramp waking, sober and lonely, finding the note and shedding a tear of transformative gratitude, and then he, Ian would be free!
He rooted in his pocket for a pencil but he didn’t have one. He’d have to forget the note. Ian leaned across him to the large pocket on the left hand side of his coat and pulled at the greasy edge. The old man stirred slightly.
“Easy does it mate,” Ian murmured. He stretched forward and began to open the old man’s pocket.
“So what do you think you’re up to?”
Ian turned around to see a policeman with his mountain bike, leaning against a tree watching him. He felt his face tighten and he gave a nervous chuckle, “Ah. You’re not going to believe this…”
The officer bared his teeth into a cold smile. “Try me. I’m known as PC Gullible at the station.”
Ian cleared his throat, and held the bottle out. “I was just putting this into the old man’s pocket. It was a gift.”
“Let me guess, you’re Father Christmas?” the constable said.
Ian wiped a sweaty hand against his trousers. At this point the sleeper began to stir.
“What''s ... whassa matter?” he grunted, “I’ve done nothin!”
“Caught this geezer trying to steal your whisky, Alf,” the officer said.
Ian gasped, “No, that’s not it at all. I just bought the whisky. I’ve got a receipt – look. I was trying to give it to him, without disturbing him. He saved my life.”
The old man, was listening hard. “I know fer a fact officer,” he said “that I’ve never seen this man before, but I have seen that bottle, it was in my pocket before I went to sleep.”
Ian stared at him aghast, his dream crumbling. “Look, yesterday down by Wapping Station you tried to hit me, don’t you remember?”
“I never laid a fuckin finger on you,” the man replied.
The policeman, peeling off his cycling gloves was scrutinising Ian. “So let me get this straight, yesterday, old Alf here, shouted at you, abused you, threatened you and today you buy him a bottle of whisky?” Ian looked forlornly at the small audience of mums and kids.
“Are you a religious nut?” said the officer, leaning in at him.
Ian shook his head. He couldn’t see any way that this could end well. He sighed and pushed the bottle towards the old man who grabbed it with his good hand.
“Here it’s yours, keep it, enjoy it. Thank you.” and then he gradually began to retreat. When he realised he wasn’t going to be pursued he turned and walked rapidly away. He could hear the sound of laughter behind him.
He found another bench and sat down. His face was hot and dirty and he was very tired. It had been a difficult couple of days. Until yesterday he’d watched events on the News barely distinguishing them from the dramas that followed. The teenage murders, the break-ins, none of these things had ever happened to him. Even victims of disasters like floods, so called Acts of God, Ian had only superficial sympathy for. They didn’t have to live by rivers, or buy houses next to the coast. He did not “go with the flow”; that just led you to rapids and rocks, he’d planned his world, and considered consequences. Now however, the routines and timetables and schedules that made up the fabric of his life suddenly seemed like an absurd handkerchief draped across the terrible chasm of fate. Supposing he just whipped that cloth away, what would happen?
He tried to imagine it for a moment, and shook his head. It would be terrifying. Anything could happen. But then anything had happened. He sat for a moment listening to the rustlings of invisible birds in the trees. He was late for work. He had already missed his afternoon meeting. The rest of the team would be gathered in the conference room waiting … and they would wait because he was never late.
What would happen? He took off his watch and put it into his pocket. He lay down on the bench, shut his eyes, and felt the fine lacy dance of sun on his eyelids.
(c) Joan Taylor-Rowan, 2012
Joan Taylor-Rowan has had several stories on Radio 4 and has been a finalist in several international short story competitions. Her novel The Birdskin Shoes is now available in paperback and e-book format. She is a teacher of Art and Textiles in London.