by Chaz Brenchley
Two: Ill-lit by Moonlight
Go slowly, come back quickly. We disembarked at Plymouth, the bike and I, and the bike was full of cheap Spanish petrol and I was virtuously empty of cheap Spanish wine but sloshingly full of Coke, dizzy only with a night’s sleeplessness and a caffeine kick and the soul’s wrack of the day before, and maybe a little dizzy with setting my feet one more time on good English concrete, with all that that implied.
Customs was a breeze, there was no one there even to wave me through, let alone to check me, check my papers, tell me I was a deeply undesirable citizen and lock me away in darkness, out of the sun’s potent glare.
It was sunlight that kept me going, kept me quick. If I’d landed in the dark I might have stopped for the night, sought out some cheap boarding-house and slept, been sensible. And then I might have lost my nerve, or at least recovered my wits and taken my time, gone slow and careful.
But no, I came out onto the road in bright morning, and my blood sang in the light and it was like drinking pure energy, my mind might be exhausted but my body was up for this, no question. Four hundred miles, four fifty? Not a problem…
So I drove, all day I drove north and east, stopping only to refuel my belly and my bike.
So I was stupid, and what’s new?
Sun was sinking, even so far north and high summer, so late I was on the road; tide was ebbing as I came at last to the last bridge over the last river and saw the glow of my city right ahead. Mud flats below me, glistening darkly and striped with shadow; council flats before me, grey concrete towers tinged pink and striped with light. Catch me living in one of those: I had a pretty good idea how much the constructors had paid my family for the contract, which meant I could make a pretty good guess just how pre-stressed that concrete was. They had to make their profit somewhere, after all…
The girders of the bridge sang to me as I crossed, high and strange and ethereal. They always did at sunset. Something to do with temperature differentials, Jamie said; me, tonight, I thought they were singing me a welcome. Welcome home Benedict, black sheep Macallan. Or a white sheep, I thought myself, from a family flock of black; but that was old imagery, a teenage habit and utterly redundant now. Bleached or blackened, I thought I was. Parade me with my peers, my kin; count the cops I’d killed and my other victim also, a life claimed not in heat or clumsiness but in cold, deliberate justice or revenge, if there’s a difference; look from my family’s faces to my own, and see if there’s a difference…
I came back into town like a bat into hell, quick no more: coasting on the updraught, very circumspect, very cautious of my widespread wings, not to flurry the sulphurous smoke and draw eyes upward, not to show my silhouette against the flames.
Something like that, at least. If I’d gone roaring through the streets, boy in black leathers on a big black bike, even two years on someone would have whispered, the whisper would have spread, there would have been phone-calls made and “Benedict? Are you sure? No? Well, check it out anyway…”
I did not, I very emphatically did not want to meet any member of my clan tonight, nor tomorrow either. I suppose that’s what I’d come back for ultimately, to face the family and exorcise some ghosts, but I’d been haunted a long time and a few days more wouldn’t hurt. I wanted to ease myself back, slip in under the skin unfelt, spend a little quality time with the bones of this city and my history.
Put it bluntly, I wanted to put it off, all the hard stuff I was here for. Still running, Ben? I asked myself, sneering; and yes, still running I was, but at least I was running on the spot now. The right spot.
Actually I felt like a ghost myself, like my own ghost or my sister’s; and I could have been taken for either as I slid the murmuring bike through quiet streets no louder for our passing, up unlit alleys where I could.
Where was I going, exactly? I didn’t know, I hadn’t thought; I should do that now, of course, I should make some decisions. But I felt stranded on a time-lag, Rip van Winkle in miniature. Rip van Tiddleywinks, perhaps. I’d kept in touch with no one, this time I’d been away—or almost so: I’d sent the occasional postcard, but never a return address—and I might have no friends left here now, or none that I could find. Students move, some students graduate and move away. I might be forced to my family after all…
No. Sooner than that, I’d try the boarding-house option, even in my own home town. Sooner than either, I put it off again. Just for an hour, just for a breath of familiar air and the touch of known ground beneath my feet.
Gravity sucked me downhill, back to the slow dark of the river. The town seemed grave-quiet; not so odd, perhaps, with the students away, though I remembered it as showing more life than this even in the long vac.
They’d greened a stretch of the quayside since I’d left, made a little park of it with grass and saplings, swings and a seesaw for the kids, benches for their parents. I parked the bike on some hardstanding and stripped off rucksack, helmet, jacket; stretched and twisted for a minute against the aches and weariness of a full day in the saddle after a night of no sleep, and then walked slowly along by the bollards and chains that marked the river’s edge.
Walked, and saw that I was not after all alone. There was a man on the furthest bench, there were sodium lights and a bright moon to show him to me: a man running to fat in middle age, losing a little of his hair, sitting huddled with his face in his hands. Not so rare in this town, fear and depression were common currency. I checked, thought perhaps I should walk the other way, not to disturb a stranger in his misery; but too late for that, he’d heard my footsteps on the flags, he lowered his hands and lifted his head and turned his eyes to find me.
One of those moments it was, when the world stills on its axis. Even in this most silent of nights, a greater silence fell. I lost the sounds of the river and the distant sounds of traffic to the south, even the sounds of my own breathing and the blood in my body. Lost the will to motion, any grip on good sense.
Got my breath back first, a slow, juddering draw of air, just enough to speak with.
Northern Lights 2
by Chaz Brenchley
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-064-4