Short story: The Long Walk

“I screwed it up this time. I screwed it right up,” Toby muttered as he walked down the street-lit road with his shoulders up around his ears to keep out the cold. “Won’t answer her phone this time, I can’t even tell her I’m sorry.” Toby wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset Jennifer, but he knew it was something terrible. Last time he’d upset her, she’d finally explained to him that he hadn’t bought her the right birthday bracelet; it had taken three hours of texts and a desperate phone call, but he’d got there in the end. She never believed him when he said sorry, ‘You only say that because I’m angry,’ she’d say, ‘how do I know you really mean it?’ So tonight, emboldened with a few shots of whisky and three beers, he was trying to prove that whatever it was he’d done wrong, he hadn’t done it intentionally.

It was three in the morning, on a cold January night and he was walking the six miles to her house to tell her he was sorry. He fingered the carefully written note in his coat pocket, but now he thought about it, a note didn’t seem enough. He should have got flowers, maybe some jewellery to post through the door with the note. He hopped over a low wall into someone’s garden and picked a couple of snowdrops and held them in his cold fist as he kept walking. Snowdrops, no one can be angry when faced with snowdrops, he thought.

Up ahead a dead bird was lying in the road, its guts spilling out through its beak, and Toby felt suddenly hopeless, Poor thing, didn’t stand a chance, he thought. He felt a part of the bird’s death, seen and mourned only by him. The night streets took on a lonely, dramatic feel; as if he was in a Beckett stage play, as he walked beneath the surreal orange spot-lights, muttering to himself, like the sole cast in a tragedy.

He looked down at the snowdrops in his hand, and they just didn’t seem enough now, they seemed silly, pathetic. So as he walked, he kept an eye out for anything he could use as an offering, like a magpie. He found a shiny black stone, a ribbon, a toy car. He wondered if the streets were always so filled with abandoned treasure. She’d have to like some of these, wouldn’t she? She’d have to forgive him. He tried to imagine her finding his little collection and the carefully worded note. Surely she’d laugh when she saw the toy car, be touched by the snowdrops, tied up with the ribbon. Then he wasn’t sure at all, he wondered if anything he did could ever be enough, maybe he was just destined to disappoint her. His legs were getting heavy and the cold bit at his knees, he hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles and the hand holding the snowdrops was completely numb. His eyes were scanning the pavement, the walls, for any more gifts. Then he spotted the note, folded and discarded on a wall, the ink smudging with the damp. He picked it up and began to read. It didn’t feel like an invasion of privacy, because these were the night streets and this was his play, instead he felt an instant kinship with the writer:

“I’m sorry William, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’ve done to make you so angry. Please let’s talk about this, we can sort it out. I love you, Becky.” Toby stood under the streetlamp for a long time, just rereading the note, imagining poor Becky writing that heartfelt note, only for William to care so little he threw it away. He imagined her desperation and fear. He wished he could give Becky the snowdrops, he felt she’d love them, that she’d laugh as he handed over the small car. With a heavy sigh, he crouched down by the wall. With his numb hands and his knees creaking, he created a small alter with a toy car, snowdrops in a ribbon, and a shiny black stone. The note sat in the middle. It felt like the proper resting place for all things discarded.

“Don’t you worry about him,” Toby whispered, “he’s not worth it.” Then he turned and started to make his way home.

The True Meaning of Secret Santa (short story)

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Picture from here

I found Secret Santa fun at first. Tashinda got me a fluffy turkey hat that made gobbling noises, and Malcom made a clay ashtray, delicately painted with flowers. It didn’t matter that Malcom’s Secret Santa recipient didn’t smoke or that I’d never wear the hat again once Christmas was over, that isn’t what Christmas is about, it’s about fun and happiness. So Secret Santa was great for the first two years, but then things started to change, it started to get competitive. People stopped keeping to the ten pound limit; no one specified a new limit, just that ten pounds wasn’t enough. Then everybody started using sparkly wrapping paper and ribbons on the presents, even though you can’t recycle either and they just get thrown away. Last year, in the big pile of shiny presents tied up with curly ribbons, mine stood out as the only package sellotaped together, in cheap red paper with bells on, and everybody laughed at me. But at least I didn’t get Dennis’s present.

Dennis is scary. Mostly he’s just sarcastic, but that can bubble into rage. It’s difficult to know when, it could be someone sitting in his spot in the canteen or a splatter of tomato sauce on the floor. Everybody is too frightened to leave unwashed mugs in the sink anymore, or crumbs around the microwave. And then when we passed around the Secret Santa gifts at the Christmas meal last year, Dennis smashed his new mug in fury.

“What is this?” he screeched.

Tashinda said nervously, “You don’t like it?”

“It’s thoughtless tat!” shouted Dennis. “This could be for anyone! There’s no thought in this, there’s no effort!”

So this year, when I pulled Dennis’s name from the bobble hat, I felt my stomach drop into my shoes and I haven’t rested since. What can I buy him? He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he wants.

I woke up at two in the morning, fretting. I tried to calm down by writing a list of all the things I knew about Dennis and possible presents: likes custard creams (buy twenty packets), doesn’t like it when people leave crumbs in the kitchen (dustbuster), has neat beard (beard trimmer). No present seems thoughtful enough. So, unable to sleep, I went looking on his Facebook page. I discovered he liked Metallica and is a member of a biker group, but he doesn’t have a motorbike. He often wrote bitchy lectures to people he called ‘A waste of oxygen’, people who needed to ‘Stop whining and starting winning’, this made me more nervous. I searched a bit harder, googling various nicknames he used for himself on his wall, following the friends he had, the groups he was part of.

If you really pay attention to what people write on social media, it’s not that difficult to pull the threads together. You can find forums they write on anonymously, Instagram and Twitter accounts under different names, even old Myspace pages they’ve forgotten existed. So that’s how I found out that Dennis writes poetry about his feelings. He started as a teenager, but hasn’t stopped, he just keeps it hidden. I’m normally a pretty mild-mannered chap, I don’t like to ruffle feathers, but I kept thinking of Tashinda looking crestfallen after Dennis broke her mug, and soon I was thinking: maybe if I frame his cheesiest poem, or find a photo if him posing as a teenager, maybe that would be funny. So I kept looking, and found more poetry, more blog posts about how lonely and misunderstood he was, but as dawn came round, I didn’t want to laugh at him anymore. I felt that all the bluster and complaint was a way of covering up for feeling unhappy and out of place, which are things I know quite well. I felt he needed a hug more than to be mocked.

I wasn’t with Dennis when he got his present, but I heard he liked it. I got him a book of Sylvia Plath poems and Ten Simple Steps to Happiness. I was told the books made him smile, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

Remember me? No? I’m Back!

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Things move quickly in the world of blog, and I suspect it’s going to take me a while to get back up to speed (although I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘up to speed’, I’ll figure it out later). Many moons have passed since I last posted (actually 3) and I’ve missed hanging out here, so I’ll be trekking WordPress over the next few weeks to find out what you’ve all been up to.

Me, I’ve been up to stuff also. In a fit of frustration at my job, I quit. It was the worst time of year for a gardener to leave a job, but after only a week of frantic wailing at my own recklessness, I got re-employed. I need to point out that the speedy turnaround was nothing to do with the state of our economy, and everything to do with the lack of people who want to be gardeners. Anyway, my new job is great, but exhausting, and in a different field to the one I’ve specialised in for the last three years, so it’s been a struggle.

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Hibiscus – taken on my last day in my old job

I’ve had to learn how to drive a van very quickly because nobody at my new job knew I’d not really driven one before, plus remember how to start a hedgecutter.

More importantly, I’ve been visited by a fox

 

and a cat,

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sadly the two aren’t friends yet.

Anyway, waffle over, stories and commentary on the world will start again soon. I hope you come back soon, and have a beautiful day.