It was cold. He didn’t know where he was and he was shaky about when, but the lightening sky suggested dawn. The bushes between him and the sky were a dripping mass of black lines that became yellow as it got lighter. The quilting of his sleeping bag was a tock, tock of deadened droplets. He didn’t move anything except his eyes because he reckoned it was one of those moments when the cold would snake around him if he gave it a chance. So John kept his body still and his mind as still as he could hold it. That wasn’t very still.
He could see the reflection of the blue lights in his bedroom window. He could hear the policeman’s radio,
‘Number 72, yes? And I should bring him in?’
Then it started to roll again: doorway, his left boot that wouldn’t unknot and how he snapped the lace, the old lady picking rubbish out of a bin as they drove up Eastern Road, the floor-polishing machine as it nosed around the few feet of people sitting in A and E, the number pad of the critical care ward. He could, he had learned over years, stop there. His mind was rather good at knowing the limit of his tolerance. What it didn’t ever spare him was the turning of the fuck-ups that rolled through his life during the two years following the accident. John reckoned that the things that hit us, like the truck hit Stevie, they are just what happens. The things we walk into out of weakness, fear and shame, they are what mark us as failures. They are what we can’t leave alone. They are what we lift, move, sift, turn and turn. We look at the underneath of them, one side, another.
John was certain he was a failure now and that was something. He remembered the years of ebbing and doubt as intolerable, mainly because he was never sure if he might still come good. There was no chance of that now. Good was gone. Good was gone to Peterborough. In Peterborough, Jane and the girls were eating toast, picking car keys from a bowl by the door, shouting things to each other as they left the house for work and college. And that imagined morning made him turn to another – the one when he’d walked out the door and Jane had run after him and smashed her coffee mug onto the drive.
The swish of cars had picked up and John thought he must be near the bypass again. It was a strange thing how the night-time walks brought him, so often, to this part of town that was so contained by the looping slip-roads and roundabouts. When John was a boy they weren’t here. This part of town was the edge of the Downland then. He was never sure if he came looking for the way out of town or if he wanted one of these roundabouts – a little island with bushes in the middle, in which he would curl and sleep.
There was a tea van up here somewhere – for truckers and people who’d slept in their cars in the layby. John had £2.17 in coins in his jeans – in a mass of silver and bronze. So he’d been begging again then. Shit. A mouthful of the scalding tea – sweet, grey and steaming – was enough to sharpen yesterday into a sequence. He’d been begging at the Marina. He’d eaten a bar of fruit and nut. He’d picked up a piece of chalk on the beach and written Stevie’s name and dates on the sea wall. He’d bought, what, for the night? A belch from his empty stomach suggested cider.
The A23 had a footpath alongside it for a bit. Then there were ways, he could remember them, to that golf club and another footpath he could take up to the windmills. It was going to be warm enough – even for the top of the Downs. The air was thickening into a September hum. John ate a handful of blackberries and breathed through the acid pain in his gut. It would go soon. It was welcome anyway – the reminder from his body that things were alive inside him. A man walking a small, cream coloured dog said hello and John replied. He stopped for a piss behind a gorse bush. That hurt too. His urine was dark and stinky and he gagged a bit. A rabbit startled him as he picked his way through the flints, back to the track.
The climb nearly did for him. The climb was a bit bloody much, John reckoned. But from the top he’d see down to Hassocks and the weald. He liked to be high, high was better. High was, he realised, closer to Stevie. There’s nothing very original in pain, John thought. We all fall to the same torments and the same comforts. We find the same metaphors. We look up in the sky for the lost people.
There was a bank of cloud advancing from the West. John sat inside the little walled area around Jill Mill. He slept for a few minutes – total sleep that engulfed him quickly – and woke to a woman’s voice.
‘Sorry, but we need you to move, I’m afraid.’
She was young and smiling. She had a rucksack the colour of plum jam and a thick, brown ponytail. John got to his feet.
‘If you wouldn’t mind just stepping outside the circle…’
The young woman held out her arm. John was aware that there were half a dozen of them now – people – overlapping talk. He was a bit dizzy. He wasn’t sure if, maybe, he was delirious. He took steps away and a man steadied him.
‘Come on, mate. This way.’
The man deposited him on a slope of grass backed by a flint wall. John felt something grinding in his back – low and hot. Then, like a dream that meets a dream, the twisting blue sky was rotating around the mill, or the mill was rotating around the sky. John knew they were turning the blades towards the wind. At some point, when he was being lifted into the ambulance, they started turning again.