Deep Beneath The Surface Lies Peace by Tony R Cox
The escalator was drawing him forward. He could see the top, but only in blurred flashes of steel and black as travellers rushed around. There was a dark suit and there was a red dress, but mostly it was just a kaleidoscope of quickly moving shapes and colours. All he knew right now was that he hated them, every single one as they obscured his view of the top of the escalator.
None of them had any idea of how he felt. They didn’t understand the demons in his head who were constantly hammering away with no rhythm like drunken toffee hammers, and it had been getting worse.
He was there; he could touch the top of the handrail, and he stepped forward. Should he stand, and let fate take him sedately and without stopping to what awaited, or should he step out and join the others as they hurriedly walked down the escalator to what he knew would be the certainty of death and perhaps peace?
The day had started so well. Was it nearly 24 hours ago that he’d got out of bed and shuffled down to the kitchen in his dressing gown, tightly wrapping it around his torso just in case the curtains hadn’t been drawn? He didn’t want the neighbours seeing his nakedness, nor any flesh at all, not at his age and shape.
The newspaper was already lying by the front door, so he picked it up and carried it to the kitchen. The headline was bleak – a hospital bombed and almost obliterated in Syria. He stifled a laugh. It wasn’t the headline and story, that was horrible, it was the incongruity of such sorrow on a day when he was about to experience total love and the promise of years of rest and peace.
Breakfast was an unthinking ritual. Tea, to wake himself up, cereal with berries, defrosted because they weren’t in season, and then, after he’d showered and dressed, a strong, black Americano. No suit today, but old habits die hard so Bill had opted for a pair of dark trousers, a blue-striped shirt and a tie. He smiled as he saw the redundant jackets on hangers and then extracted a dark blue cardigan.
The morning passed in a blur of activity. He read the paper and started the Quick Crossword then carried it through to the living room from the kitchen. The laptop remained off, as he’d promised himself, and Radio 4 was just a blur of noise as he washed up the breakfast dishes and wiped down all the surfaces, including the top of the hob and that stubborn, stewed apple stain. The vacuuming took a good hour, as it always did when he’d summoned up the mental strength to tackle it. Bill looked at the staircase and saw the dust gathered around each of the balustrades. Damn, he said to himself and walked into the dining room, which was more of a library and office now, and ran his finger along the top of the large, framed print by Renoir over the fireplace. There was a thick smear of greasy dust on top of the frame, as there always was when he did that; probably because it was over the open fire and the heat, when the logs were burning, sent greasy, black specks of almost invisible dust upwards to settle on every surface.
Bill sat in the chair and felt a tear escape from his eye. This is a bloody celebration, he said as he shook his head. Abi’s coming round tomorrow, she can’t see him crying, she’ll get the wrong message. He stopped. I just called her Abi, he said to himself, and then, out loud: “Your name’s Abigail my girl and don’t you forget it. In this house you’ll always be Abigail. Just because those friends of yours can’t handle anything more than two syllables doesn’t mean you’ve got to have a different name.”
She’d reacted then as she always had these last ten years or so: a kiss on the cheek and a loving pat on the head as she stroked his thinning grey hair.
Bill laughed at the memory and sprung back to his feet. Today’s going to be a day to remember, he said soundlessly and carried on cleaning, dusting the surfaces just in case he had visitors that day.
About midday Bill felt a pang of hunger and thought about making himself a sandwich. He only wanted a light lunch, but then he slipped on his North Face jacket – bought with every intention of walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall and only used properly once when he was on a barge holiday in Norfolk and had to walk to a shop in a rainstorm. He strode up the hill, passed the field where the old horse munched and stayed oblivious to any human activity, to the centre of the large village. The cafe was buzzing and some were even sat outside, muffled against the single-figure temperatures, but as he walked by there was a tap on the window and Mrs Groesmann waved and pointed down to an empty chair.
She was a nice old soul and it was really naughty of the schoolkids to call her ‘Mrs Fatty’, a sort of play on words of part of her surname. She was a little overweight, but nothing serious and she had the most welcoming smile. They chatted over lunch, a sort of Italian bread sandwich with a bit of meat, but mostly green salad leaves. He wasn’t really listening as she gave him all the Methodist Church gossip, he wasn’t a churchgoer of any sort, but he nodded politely. A chat with Mrs Groesmann was always good when you had little to say: she took centre stage and said it all herself, so there was no need for a true conversation.
“How’s that beautiful daughter of yours? Is she enjoying London?” The voice cut through Bill’s private train of thought. “Oh yes, Brenda,” he said and smiled. “She seems to be doing well. I’m still not keen on the sort of friends she’s got, waifs and strays most of them if you ask me, but that’s what she’s like. If anybody needs a shoulder to cry on my Abigail’s got it.”
Yes, he thought, blocking out the woman’s monologue as she carried on speaking, having not heard or at least responded to his answer, Abigail was doing fine, but that was Abigail’s response to every question about her private life. She was in a low paid job, and he helped her out with a few hundred pounds every month or so, and she was sharing a flat in a rundown area well outside the centre. She was nearly 30 and should have settled down, he thought, but he knew better than to voice such an opinion. She just seemed to be drifting with no ambition.
Bill kissed Brenda’s cheek, responding to her statement, ‘isn’t it nice to have a chat’ with a wan smile and he left the cafe feeling full, even though he’d only eaten the Italian sandwich thing and a piece of cake, which Mrs Groesmann had insisted on, and yet empty at the same time. His stomach was full, but the emptiness was in his head. He could feel a headache coming on and hoped it wasn’t a migraine. The comment about Abigail, and his own unstated worries about her, were nagging him.
Back home he picked up the paper and within a few minutes was asleep in his favourite armchair. He awoke with a start. He’d been feeling drowsy in the afternoons for years, but he’d never slept until it was dark. He glanced at the digital clock by the TV, it was three o’clock, or about that, so he’d only been asleep for a few minutes, an hour at most, but the sun had moved round and was no longer streaming in the window, leaving the light level lower, as if it was evening. Bill settled back in his chair and picked up the newspaper again. At half four he made himself another mug of tea and prepared the meal. It was early, but he had to get changed for the evening party, and so he got the pasta and the shop-brand sauce out. By five Bill had finished, by five fifteen he’d washed up and put everything away, by six he was back downstairs, showered, shaved and dressed all in black over a white shirt. Two items were needed to complete the look: the thick, black, quiffed wig, and Abigail’s old acoustic guitar.
Bill looked at himself in the hall mirror and swung the guitar from left to right. Abigail had learned a bit, but she’d lost interest; Bill flexed his fingers and almost automatically strummed an A, then a C and a D chord. “Yes,” he shouted as his right hand crashed out the rhythm, “the rock star is back in town.”
At half seven the taxi dropped him at the Golden Horseshoe and he made his way surreptitiously round the side to the ballroom annexe. Two work colleagues he’d met in passing were outside smoking. One stubbed his cigarette out and hurried back in as soon as Bill hove into sight; the other stuck out a hand.
“You alright then Bill? Big day for you. I’ve got your calendar; I hope that’s OK,” he said. Bill smiled and nodded. He couldn’t remember the young man’s name, but the Dilbert calendar was no problem. There were only two months of the year left.
Bill walked into the ballroom. ‘Happy Retirement Bill Jenkins’ was emblazoned on a large banner that stretched out over the stage. The clapping began and became louder and more rhythmical as he approached the stage, a pathway clearing before him as Marilyn Monroe – with a beard no less – and Buddy Holly guided him to the stage. He walked slowly up the steps, turned and looked out: there must have been over a hundred people on the floor below. It was supposed to be a 1950s theme fancy dress party. He thought he was stretching it with Johnny Cash, who was in the US Air Force when he’d been born, but most of the guests obviously had a date problem. There were the Beatles, in full 1968 flower power clothes, a lot of Teddy Boys and the women had gone for flared skirts and tight blouses, a la rock ‘n roll. The couple from Finance, and they were a couple in more ways than just working together as everyone knew, were Bonnie and Clyde, which Bill found slightly amusing.
This was the time he feared as he saw Mr Simpson approach. It was going to be awful having to call him Cedric in front of all these now ex-colleagues, and he was dreading a long, boring speech about how much he’d be missed when he knew that they hadn’t even bothered to replace him as Chief Overseas Procurement Officer. The room hushed. Bill was on the stage, in the centre on his own as Cedric Simpson walked up, a fixed smile stuck on his face, a sheaf of papers in his left hand. That was when Bill noticed the flashing blue lights appear outside.
Bill sat in the kitchen at the pub. A policewoman had commandeered the kettle and made tea for four of them: Bill, her, a younger colleague of hers and a tall, middle-aged man in a cap emblazoned with silver epaulettes. They all looked far too young to Bill.
A woman fitting Abigail’s description had been found at Shepherds Bush, the policeman said. “That’s a long way from Abigail’s Leytonstone flat,” Bill replied. They thought she’d fallen on the live rail and been electrocuted, and she had been taken to the hospital.
They took Bill home. He refused all the offers of someone staying with him and he’d flatly turned down asking someone from the village to stay. The retirement party was a distant memory: they could have still held it as far as he was concerned, He may have been the reason for it, but he was never going to be the star, even before he left in the police car: that was down to the youngsters and their revelries.
Alone in his three-bedroom semi Bill tried to sleep. The migraine hadn’t appeared, he knew what that was like and he’d been dreading it, but this was worse: this was a blackness that enveloped his whole body. They didn’t know for sure that it was Abigail they’d found. The description was her, down to her tattoos and body piercings, but they couldn’t be sure. Perhaps it wasn’t his beloved girl at all; perhaps she’d walk back in right now with a boyfriend or even a girlfriend; perhaps this was just a nightmare and it would be over soon. Then he looked on the bedside table and there was the card the police inspector had given him.
He screwed up his eyes, but the tears, the relief and outpouring of grief wouldn’t come. He was adrift. His life had lost all meaning and direction. Abigail was his reason for living. She wasn’t perfect, but then nobody was. Now that he’d left work to enjoy retirement he didn’t even have the regimentation of a daily journey to work in Dunstable from the village outside Potters Bar. Loneliness fell on him like the fresh earth on a lowered casket. What had Churchill called it? His ‘Black Dog’? Well, this wasn’t like that: the blanket of earth that flooded him was almost comforting in its finality.
Bill reached the end of the escalator and stepped out through a short, tiled archway onto the platform. He relaxed, his arms dropping down to his sides as he saw the tracks. He blinked his eyes purposefully and walked slowly forward, staring at the shining silver of the live rail.
“Mr Jenkins. Thank you for coming today,” the female voice said as he felt his arm being taken gently by the elbow. “We could have picked you up from your home, but we’re pleased to meet you here as you asked. We’ll accompany you to the hospital together. All we will be doing is asking you to identify the person whom we believe to be your daughter.”