You step out of the prison and into the street and the silence swallows you up. It’s late November and the sun set hours ago. The pavement’s wet – maybe it’s been raining or maybe its fog. No foot traffic tonight, it’s too cold for most. But the air’s fresh and you like it like this. A twelve-hour shift behind a big steel gate, brick walls ten feet deep, and to walk with the cool air on your skin is a welcomed relief.
You turn the corner and walk alongside the dual carriageway. Both lanes are still full, even the exit lane. Must be roadworks or an accident somewhere. An endless river of taillights drift past you, leading to a hundred journeys home. Most are still trying to head West, others North. When you stop at the crossing you check your watch: Just after eight. You’ve still got plenty of time.
While you wait for the lights to change you watch the wind in those tall trees opposite. You take in the sound as it rushes through the high branches. It’s clean and simple and not like the confused looping echoes of the prison’s hallways. You cross when the green man shows. Four years you’ve been taking this route – the walk from the prison to the station, then two trains and a bus and eventually home. It’s never bothered you, mind. Should be in for ten, and you prepped dinner on Wednesday so that’s taken care of.
As you near the station the shops and the bars come in to view, all of them lit up for Christmas. All of them desperate to claw back something of what they’ve lost these past few years. It’s Friday night, the noise and the revelry spilling out onto the pavement as you side step a group of smokers. One of the smokers, an old fella, calls out to you something about a merry Christmas and you manage a smile.
Must be a work do, you reckon. Yours’ is next Wednesday. You’ve said you’ll go but haven’t for the past four years, so why would you now? It’s the new girl who’s asked you. She’s ex-army too. She’s tried to talk to you about it, bless her. Others have told her not to bother: he doesn’t give much away that one.
One or two of the shop windows pique your interest and you stop to have a look. The toys for him. The jewelry for her. You know you shouldn’t but you indulge anyway. He’s 14 now and too old for toys. He probably wants games for his X-Box if he’s got one. Or a laptop to help with his schoolwork if he hasn’t already got one. Just say the word and it’s yours, all of it. Stop it, you think, or did you say it out loud? You put your head down and don’t stick around to find out.
2046. Train’s delayed. Not to worry. Lucky really given you were late leaving. Another attempt, just before sign off. Someone else who thinks they’ve had enough and tried to end it on their own terms. They say he’ll be okay, the medics. You’ve seen more attempts than successes since you’ve been there. Successes – what can you do but smirk. But sooner or later you get used to anything. Some officers don’t last long enough to find out. Not that you don’t feel it, mind. And now you’ve come to review each attempt and success, rate them even, and think how you might do it differently if it were you.
Tonight it was a kid called Callum cut himself. He’s new to it all, can’t quite fit. Always asking questions. You see how he is after visits. Hiding away for the rest of the day. But what can you do? You can’t get too close. Eventually they have to learn for themselves how to survive in there. He’d never shown signs of hurting himself before. There was no way of you knowing. They say he’ll be okay. He’s 22 and too old to be so naïve; too young to feel so lost. You were picking out an engagement ring and getting ready for your first tour of duty at that age. There were kids like Callum there too. At least there you could call each other brother.
May be you should go to the work do. Get to know the new girl and listen to her stories. You question the age gap. But the ex was younger than you and it wasn’t the age gap that ended that. Cheryl was your mate’s little sister. She’d not long finished college when you started seeing her. You were still in training. She may have been a couple of years younger than you but Cheryl had ambition. She was a stone cold stunner and could have gone out with anyone, gone anywhere, but she stuck around for you. Poor girl, probably thought she was on to a sure thing.
You got married, bought a house when people like you still could, had the baby. She thought you were ready; you thought you were doing what you were supposed to. Everything was perfect. But it’s easy to be perfect when you’re never around. Then they discharged you on medical grounds. You wonder if she still believes you that it was epilepsy. You wonder if she ever found out that the ‘S’ on your discharge code stood for ‘stability’. She probably worked that out before the army did.
You slip from one train and onto the next, no consideration needed. You could do this in your sleep. At work you tried to get yourself rota’d on to work the weekend, but no luck. One of the boys from your unit’s turning 40 on Saturday and you’ve been invited to some big do they’re having at some golf course. It’s the last place you want to be, surrounded by those faces and listening to those stories. A colleague at the prison’s asked if you’re interested in some extra security work. He said it’s good money, but the hours are awkward, he said. You might take him up on it.
You’ve moved from the train to the bus and now you’re headed into the shop to buy your four pack of cider and a pint of milk. The shopkeeper calls you by your first name and it takes you off guard. You pocket the change and say thank you.
From across the road the road you can see that the door to your block has been left open. You shake your head and tut as you make sure it’s closed behind you. As you walk the long corridor you make an inventory of the noises coming from behind each door: TV’s too loud, kids up too late, someone starting a party in there.
The flat’s cold when you get in, but a rabbit hutch like this doesn’t take long to warm up. You take off your boots and put them at the bottom of the wardrobe. Hang up your uniform and, like you always do, knock over the framed picture of him that you’re always meaning to put up. He’s just got out the bath and he’s lying on his changing mat, wrapped in one of those towels with the little hood on. He’s smiling this big smile like he’s in on the joke. May be you could do that this weekend, put up his picture. You wish you had more photos. You doubt your dad’s got any photos of you, barely even memories.
You were a dad at 24 and divorced at 30. Cheryl moved to Spain not long after. She’s got two more kids now, a boy and a girl, or so your mum’s told you. You really should call your mum, you think. You could try and do that this weekend as well.
Dinner’s cooked by 2230. Roast chicken, boiled potatoes and veg, heated up in the microwave. As you sit on the sofa, your plate on your knee, you try and think of a way of getting out of this thing on Saturday and your work do on Wednesday. It’s not like you’ll be missed. The new girl’s cute but she’s just being nice. You’ll probably turn up and she won’t even talk to you. You’ll probably drink too much and make a tit of yourself – on either occasion, or both.
After you’ve washed your plate you open another can and sit back down to watch a documentary about the Second World War. You think back about how for you, once you’d learned to put up with the pain and the boredom, how being a soldier was just another job in the end. How you were just good at doing what you were told but felt adrift when the orders stopped. Was it the same for them on the screen back then, drenched in black and white?
As the narrator’s somber tone drones on and heavy artillery rains down, you begin to nod off. You see Cheryl again, and him. She’s sat up in the hospital bed holding his tiny form. She looks tired, flushed but smiling. The boy’s swaddled in soft blue but you can’t see his face. Someone comes up behind you then and gently touches your arm. A doctor or a midwife.
“What are you doing,” they ask. “What are you waiting for?”
And you wake with a jolt.
2330. Lights out.
A South London native, Sam Robson is honing the craft of writing with the aim of carving out a career as a writer.