My old man is a legend. They will sing nursery rhymes about him in years to come. Some catchy tune to remind kids not to play with fire. A little ditty like… ‘Don’t fool with matches kids, Sparky might get ya. Atishoo atishoo we all burn down.’
You know how it goes. Take a good man, a hero, a firefighter and highlight his mistakes and defective personality, then paint a monster across the front page. It sells newspapers and crime magazines by the millions. They force feed the drivel that spews from the mouths of chat show hosts and news anchors alike. Cheap shit sells, like a Forbes 500 for psychos. Until the next sick fuck comes along, then it’s goodnight from me and don’t forget to switch off the gas. We all have obsessions. Mine was drink, his were flowers.
I take the steps two at a time and make the pavement as the bus roars past like a stray missile. I narrowly avoid a soaking as its wheels kick rainwater sideways over the kerb. It speeds onwards through the city that never sleeps. The time is 6.30am. I raise a Marlboro to my lips.
“You hear the message kid?”
“Sort of,” I reply. “You gotta stop sneaking up on me Hank.” He strikes a lighter. I pull on the cigarette and inhale deep. “Its disturbing for a man your age to be as light-footed as that.”
“Then how come you’re up and out so fast, the meeting hasn’t finished, what’s up?”
The decision between honest vulnerability or shovelling bulldust is comparable to the speed of light. Since it’s still dark and a blade wielding crack head might pop up at any time, I choose the latter.
“You ever sponsor a woman Hank?”
He gives me a ‘what the fuck is this shit’ kinda look, then grabs the Marlboro from my fingers.
“Anybody in Alcoholics Anonymous chuck that men for men women for women crap at ya is just aiming to keep all the pussy for themselves.” He exhales a full lung of smoke through his nostrils.
I reach out and take back the cigarette, “That’s not an answer Hank.”
“Yeah, once, it didn’t end well.”
“I married her.”
“I never knew you were married.”
“What’s with all the questions?”
“You started it.”
Hank grins. The Sun throws golden beams across the horizon as a new day breaks. I feel the city groan and rumble from its stupor. This place will be swarming in no time. It never sleeps but it’s rarely awake.
We loiter outside the ‘Light Seekers’ meeting on the edge of Harlem. Round these parts it’s AA for breakfast or closed drapes, Wild Turkey, and alcoholic roulette.
He smiles, “What’s eating you kid?”
“My old man,” I take another draw from the smoke. “He’s sick.”
“No shit,” he lets out a high pitch whistle. “I thought a jury signed off on that 20 years ago.”
I fight the urge to laugh and instead choke up. “I’m serious Hank, he’s dying. The old lady phoned. He won’t see the week out.”
I hear noise from the church basement as the meeting comes to a close. Chatter turns into hugs as the group burst out into the city. Each to their own for another 24 hours.
A lady of any age glances back at Hank. Possible looker in her day, now the styrofoam creases in her shoe soles match her forehead; a shell suite hides a figure whose glory days long went south. She mimics a ‘call me’ hand signal. Hank nods, hoping nobody notices.
“Thought you were married?”
He drops a quick squeeze that might be gentle, knowing half his strength, then as quick as it landed, his hand leaves my shoulder, “Like I said, it didn’t end well.”
“In what way?” I ask.
“In a way that sometimes you just gotta let certain people die.”
My friend Hank, never let it be said that he slips a straight answer. Almost as effortless as he slipped blows in the ring before HBO punched his ticket and off he went to guzzle a fortune. Drank a six-figure sum in as many years while the hookers and the dealers gave salute on his way to the funny farm. He’s a better man for the experience and I would be lost in this place without him.
“I be out of town for a few days Hank.” I flick the cigarette into the last of the darkness. It ricochets off the blacktop, then drowns in the leftover rain. “I have unfinished business back home.”
The subway to JFK and the tube train from Heathrow melt into one like a giant transatlantic freak show linking both sides of the pond. The flight is mainly uneventful. I slip into sleep at takeoff and somehow incorporate the stewardesses tits into my dream before being shook awake by the clink of bottles.
“Would you like anything from the drinks trolley, sir?”
Prayer takes on a whole new meaning at 30,000 feet.
I exit the tube station to learn that he never made it through the night. The London Gazette runs the headline ‘Sparky’s last bonfire. Serial Killer to be cremated.’
Back home, mother feigns sympathy while brewing tea. She talks of the infant me: Riding on his shoulders, playing football in the park, toy fire engines and visits to the station, waiting up till he came home at night, leaping out of bed to greet him when he made it back from the night shift. How the allotment garden was his pride and joy, barred to anybody else but me. How I revelled in that honour. The smiles quickly fade to horror as she turns the conversation to those endless days of the trial. Those parasitic journalists and their flashbulbs lighting up the night and every dash to and from the house.
“He had more than two sides you know,” she says while busying herself with the dishes.
I watch her at the sink washing up. Her hair has greyed since we last shared a room and somehow she seems smaller.
“How come, in what way?” I ask.
“In his ways.” She forces a smile, “and I only miss one of them.” Mum empties the draining board’s contents into a cupboard and takes a pack of cigarettes from her apron pocket. She looks ancient. “You got a light?” A silence fills the room and I can almost see her heart break.
“Why did you stay here mum, after everything that happened?”
“I don’t know son.” She takes a lighter from a drawer and offers me the cigarette packet. “Nowhere else to go, my plans were always here.” A tear trails down her cheek. “I wish they just left his fucking poxy garden alone.”
I want to scream at her. That garden was everything to him; more than the job, more than her, more than… more than drink was to me. Everything!
I feel her pain. I reach out and put my arms around her. I pull her in tight, “I love you mum.” She’s all bones.
The way I see it, you shouldn’t push people too far. Especially those out there giving it everything for the good of others. Those who see tragic things day and night. Those who need a place of safety to retreat to and embrace their demons. Those who appear to sleep easy when in reality dream darker than death. Those who have the one thing they need to cope with all that. One thing only. Like a garden. You shouldn’t push people like that too far. We didn’t need another fucking supermarket.
Dad was smart. He knew the investigation team would rule that the explosion at the planning department was arson. He knew the council official’s death would start a murder investigation. He knew blowing up the police station would lead them down a different track. The incendiary device that took out the investigation team trawling through the rubble at the cop shop was one thing. Injuring himself in the line of duty was another. Pure genius, a month spent in the hospital, his pension settled in full. An entire lifetime to tender that garden and watch those flowers bloom. Except then there was a new council official and the same old planning order. The garden was still going. The supermarket was still coming. Torching this prick with a flamethrower on his doorstep was definitely the spark that lit the flame. They convicted dad on 16 counts of murder by diminished responsibility. A psychiatrist testified to multiple personality disorder. It turns out that the personality that was in love with Lillys and Petunias also had intense homicidal tendencies. The press had a field day. Like I said… You shouldn’t push people too far.
We held the funeral service at Broadmoor. A private affair. Just mother and myself accompanied by a vicar and the hospital director. We scattered dad’s ashes over the garden on a little plot they had given him to grow flowers. The doctor described afterwards that the mural had been part of his therapy. A blazing supermarket and fire engines weaved into a botanical tapestry. Impressive.
I make the call from Heathrow. “How did it go kid?” He says.
“It didn’t end well Hank.”
“In what way?”
I look back from the phone booth towards a waste bin. Just a moment earlier, I had used a cheap burner phone to dial another number. I dropped it into the trash when the call rang to voicemail. A TV news crew stood outside a supermarket on the other side of London. They broadcast a live interview with the manager. Somewhere a phone rang. The ringtone was a siren from a fire engine. The news anchor’s face a little annoyed as it kept ringing. Nobody knew where the sound came from. The following silence lasted little more than a second. The explosion shook the earth across the capital.
From the departure lounge, I saw smoke stretch up from the horizon. The tannoy barked, “This is the last call for the flight to JFK.”
I turn my attention back to the payphone, “In a way that sometimes you just gotta let certain people die Hank.”
I end the call and board the plane. You see, my old man was a legend. They will sing nursery rhymes about him in the not too distant future; reminding kids not to play with fire, and how it’s wise not to push people too far.