Southend was in the hands of the food pedlars. Garish lighting and clubby music called the drunks forth like moths, putting them in the path of culinary odours. Trunks of donor meat mesmerised with their languorous pirouettes, chopped vegetables in salad trays awaited indiscriminate scooping, bedded dangerously near uncooked meat amid decorative herbs. Polystyrene trays snapped open to be filled with food and stabbed by plastic forks. Day-Glo sauces were squeezed in excessive spirals.
The man in the metallic blue bomber jacket didn’t need to check his watch to know the time was around 2.30. That would give enough time for the clubbers from Lucy Road to make it this far, their routes hindered by zig-zagged diversions, emotionally unsound interactions and hiatuses to interfere with bins and shopping trolleys. He was sober though–he drank, but not to get drunk, enjoying the mellow edge but stopping before–this.
Edging round a puddle of fresh vomit, he approached the High Street, passing the flashpoint scrum of the taxi rank. As he turned the corner, a tense conversation caught his ear.
“I’ve fuckin’ had enough of this shit, I don’t care if she’s a girl.”
“Just leave it man,” said the boy’s companion. “We’ve all had a few beers, we all get annoyed by the odd bitch, just leave it.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’ve had enough. I’m sick of people trying to walk all over me like that. Not any more.”
“Mate, come on–the taxi rank’s filling up. Let’s go, we can have a smoke at mine, come on.”
“Bollocks.” He charged the wrong way up the street.
“Come on man, drop it,” his friend shouted, taking chase.
“Excuse me,” shouted the man in the jacket, holding out a piece of paper. “I think you forgot something.”
“You what?” yelled the boy, turning back. “What did I forget?”
“Your sense of perspective. You can have this tenner, on one condition. You go now and get yourself a pizza.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” his mate said. “Free pizza.”
The guy looked at him incredulously but took the note. As he did, the benefactor touched a discreet gold badge on the arm of his bomber jacket, taking a picture of the boy’s face.
“Thanks,” the lad said with an arched eyebrow, then duly headed to Ali Baba’s Kebab & Pizza.
These hot nights bring the devil out, thought the man in the jacket as he resumed his journey. And the legs, he mentally added, seeing a group of short-skirted girls heading towards the taxi rank. He corrected himself though; the girls here would dress like this in the Klondike if there were alcopops and house DJs to lure them out among the ice.
“Nah, I ain’t takin’ this,” said a corkscrew-haired girl residing at the top of one of the pairs of legs.
“Come on, Chel, don’t get stressed,” said a teenage boy in chinos.
“Don’t treat me like I’m a pisshead,” she screeched, “he fucking pushed me flying.” Her freckles grew so angry it seemed they might jump off her face in protest. “I’m gonna find ‘im.”
She marched towards the kebab shop, as effectively as one can in five-inch heels. “Oi!”, she shouted, her war-cry ricocheting between WH Smith and Barclays Bank.
“Ginger bitch!” the boy with the tenner shouted from afar, who by rights should have a deep pan pizza in his face by now.
The man in the bomber jacket intercepted Chel’s momentum.
“Drop it maybe?” he smiled.
“Who the fuck are you?” she scowled.
“Someone who wants you to wake up tomorrow without a black eye.”
“Fuck the black eye, he needs a slap.”
“I don’t like people waking up with a heavy heart.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not your problem is it?”
“No,” Jacket said, and grinned as if the fact was irrelevant.
“You don’t know this situation,” she said.
“I know all situations,” he said, and touched his badge.
Chel, and only Chel, saw a picture of the boy she was chasing, appearing in some kind of hologram between her face and this man’s jacket. The boy looked flustered, with the mistrust of a drunk who had just been offered a free pizza by a stranger.
The man let go of his badge and the image dissipated.
“OK, maybe you do know this situation,” Chel said, heading back to her friends. She paused halfway and turned. “I wonder what else you know,” she said.
8.30 in the morning. The milkman was tired. He hadn’t slept all night. He wasn’t used to this. He wasn’t a milkman. He rang the doorbell, looked up at the thin terraced house. Leaves blew in unseasonable eddies.
The door creaked open and a sleepy freckled woman appeared in her nightie.
“Morning,” said the man in the bomber jacket, putting down a wire carrier full of bottles. “Shane’s on holiday so I’m covering his round.”
“OK,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’ll get the money.”
She walked down the hallway to the kitchen. The milkman crept inside and quietly shut the door.
She saw him, in her house, and gasped in fear.
“She loves you a lot you know,” said the milkman.
The woman tried to speak.
“I don’t think she thinks much of herself,” the man continued.
“Maybe you told her she was stupid too many times.”
“Who–,” the woman began.
“Chelsea only drinks to make herself feel good.”
“I hate it when she drinks,” the woman said. “No daughter of mine behaves like a slut.”
“I understand,” the milkman murmured and touched his badge.
His host received a private vision; an image of a man hitting a small child. A small child with freckles.
“Dad,” she whispered, her face haunted.
“If you could start over with Chelsea, would you do it differently?” he asked.
“Yes,” whispered the mother, then, finding her voice, “she’s not stupid.”
“Got my money?” he asked, looking down at her hand.
She looked in her palm. Amid the change were 5p coins the size they used to be. From the kitchen radio, a pop song, Karma Chameleon, played for the first time. Upstairs, a baby cried.
“I’ll let myself out,” the man said.
Eventually the pub opened. The tired man in the bomber jacket got up from the park bench and headed towards it, stopping when he heard a crunch under his feet. He looked at the ground to see large fragments of tinted glass on the pavement. The largest shard was the neck of a Peroni bottle. He crouched. Was that blood? He carefully took it and held it by the badge, sighing out the woes of the world at what he learnt.
A pensioner supped a pint of mild in his local, grimacing at the overfamiliar surroundings. Hardly anyone else was here yet, but now a man in a bomber jacket had entered. The man ordered a coke and looked around, as if searching. He wandered over to the old man’s table, and wordlessly took a seat.
The regular scowled. Hushed words were exchanged. His new acquaintance gently touched his badge and the old man saw images of a war which never left him. The man in the jacket left the pub, with his drink barely touched.
The landlord was amazed to see the crabby old man wipe away a tear.
The man in the jacket was waiting outside the house.
“Decided?” he asked.
“I’ll go,” the old man said, unlocking his front door. “What do I do?”
“Just sit,” Jacket said, following him into the living room. He sat too, the strangers close on the faded brown settee. “What’s that?” he asked, nodding towards the framed medal mounted above the oak-finish TV set.
“The Burma Star,” the old man said. “What I get for being sniped at by Japs.”
Jacket nodded and left open an inviting silence.
“I don’t regret fighting,” the veteran said. “But I didn’t have to do all the things I did.”
“You don’t have to do all the things you could,” Jacket corrected.
“Who are you?” the old man asked, not for the first time.
“I’m a tired man who needs his bed,” the man in the jacket answered, “but first I’ve got to stop off at yesterday.”
“But I get my second chance first?” the young man asked, his thick black hair side-parted and set in Brylcreem.
Jacket approached the gramophone and put on Moonlight Serenade. “Don’t waste it,” he said. No medal hung on the wall.
“I won’t lift a hand to her,” he said. “Thank you.”
The man in the jacket let himself out. “Excuse me,” he said, to the pregnant young woman coming in with the shopping.
“You,” Jacket said to the muscle-bound geezer in the pub garden, waiting for his mate to bring the next round.
“What do you mean ‘you’?” the man said, rising to his feet.
“That,” the man in the jacket said, nodding towards the bottle of Peroni in the thug’s hand.
“What you on about?” said the aggrieved drinker, his face close to Jacket’s.
“I saw it,” he explained. “I saw that broken bottle after you smashed it over a Kosovar’s head. I saw the blood. I saw the pain, the hate. I saw the tears, and I’m telling you. Don’t.”
“I haven’t smashed anything you nutjob.”
“Yet,” said Jacket. “One day he’s a normal teenager living with his family, next day he comes home and his house has burnt down. Doesn’t know if they’re dead or alive. Red Cross can’t find ‘em. He has to leave, he picks England. We arrest him, but eventually he’s allowed to settle. He lives on a fiver a day cos he can’t work. Gets a pair of fake trainers from Pitsea Market and you’re jealous. And you. Let’s look at you.”
Jacket touched his badge and the drinker saw, in perfect clarity, the forces that shaped his life, the suffering that made him violent, and at last, the compassion of another human being, who could see all he was, but still gave him a second chance.
The meathead looked pensive for a few seconds, but his face soon stiffened with resolve.
“They can all get glassed for all I care,” he sniffed. “Just wish they’d fuck off ‘ome.”
The man in the bomber jacket broke the thug’s jaw.
“Nah, I ain’t takin’ this,” said a corkscrew-haired girl in a slim pair of jeans.
“Come on, Chel, don’t get stressed,” said a teenage boy in chinos.
“He fucking pushed me flying, course I’m stressed!” she shouted. “Wanker!” she added.
She stood staring after her assailant, her hand on her hips. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I’ve had enough.”
The man in the jacket smiled at her. She didn’t recognise him so just gave him a look.
“There he is!” someone shouted.
Jacket turned as a burly group gathered around him, armed with bottles and Stanley knives. Behind them, the man with the broken jaw stood and watched.
“You’re right,” Jacket said, “I shouldn’t have done it.”
“Shouldn’t have done what?” asked one of the blokes, pushing him backwards.
“Hit your mate. I should have known better. These things always loop round.”
It was too late to do anything about it. He’d probably die here. The man pushed him again. Another of the group had crouched behind him. He fell backwards onto the floor and a heavy boot kicked him in the ribs.
“Oi, leave it out,” the girl shouted.
“Go ‘ome love,” one of the men answered.
“It’s hardly a fair fight is it?”
“Come on Chelsea, leave it,” said her friend.
She faded into the background. More kicks came. A skinhead with Borstal teardrops tattooed onto his face crouched down and punched the man in the jacket on the nose. He felt warm blood gather on his upper lip. The guy pulled his fist back for another go, when a familiar voice interrupted them.
“Excuse me lads.”
Jacket looked up to see himself–an unbloodied doppelgänger crouching over him.
“What?” said the skinhead, looking from one Jacket to the other.
“I shouldn’t have broken his jaw,” the prone man confessed to his alternate self.
“If you could go back in time, would you change things?”
The injured Jacket nodded.
The crouching Jacket smiled. “All right. You probably deserve a break.” He touched his badge.
BIO: Daevid reverse-engineers morsels of reality and extracts their meaning, injecting this concentrate into carefully assembled words and hoping for a positive outcome. This process began when, as a child in Essex, England, a school teacher asked him to write a poem about a rocket launch. He hasn’t stopped writing since. He lives in Oxfordshire on the isle of Albion and is working on his novel, Resuscitating God.