Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reckoning by Chris Castle


He took his lunch in the café by the pier. Most days he sat in with the other men, but today the factory was smoky and heavy and he needed to get out. He ordered coffee, a sandwich, took the table he usually grabbed at weekends, when he came in here, both Saturday and Sunday. He smiled as the waitress took his order, noticing her surprise at him sitting there, clutching the menu.

He looked out to the pier; the tourists gone now, the promenade forgotten. The sky was grey and the first splatters of rain hit the window. To anyone else it would be gloomy, depressing even, but to him it was beautiful; being able to see the clouds gather, hear the raindrops fall. He watched the patterns of the shower form across the glass, seeing the waitress watch him in the reflection; all she saw was a young man staring out of the window, trying to catch the girls’ eyes. That was all she knew.

He ate the food and refilled his cup. He glanced at his watch and saw he still had ten minutes. Maybe he would buy another book from over the road, be served by the girl he had fallen a little in love with over the last month. Maybe he would go down onto the pier and watch the waves. So much freedom, he thought, smiling, looking round to find the waitress and seeing the woman walk straight towards his table, him. He felt his stomach lurch, as she sat down opposite him with a quiet bustle.

“I know. I know, so don’t try and deny it.” Her voice was small but sharp, each word searing. “I know who you are and don’t you dare try and deny it.” He put his palms up, feeling the inside of himself explode. He had waited for months for this moment.

He had expected a crowd, a riot even. Now, there was just a small woman, armed, facing him with the truth.

He sat and listened as she spoke. Her hands in-front of her, as if she was reading from an invisible script. He could tell she had rehearsed this a thousand times, practising over and over, the moment she came face to face with the monster, now a man. Her voice wavered, it strained, but she didn’t break. For that, he almost admired her. Somewhere close-by, the waitress hovered over them, a table over or two, monitoring them out of the corner of her eye. Even as he followed the woman opposite, he tracked the waitress too; aware of her warmth towards him draining away the more she looked at the other woman. She did not hear the words, but she saw her agony and understood well enough.

When she was done, the woman drew back, folded the outstretched hands into her chest. It almost looked as if she was praying. Her face, drained of all colour, was all creases and pale skin and dark lines. He wondered what she must have looked like before, if she had once been beautiful. How she must have looked when she was alive and not broken, before he stole everything she had held precious in her heart from her.

She asked one last question, so low it was almost a whisper. He nodded; suddenly aware he had not spoken since she had sat down. He had offered no defence; he had none to offer.

“Dylan. Dylan Taylor. I chose it myself. I don’t know why they let me choose it. I don’t know why I chose that name. I’m twenty.” His voice was shaky; but then, was that his voice? Or was it just another layer, another lie, to place on top of the others? She tried to show disgust, to sneer, but she couldn’t manage it, not quite. She was not corrupt enough to manage viciousness. Instead she buckled, looked at him with a depth in his eyes he could not remember seeing before. He wanted to look away, but he knew he could not; he would not allow himself to be a coward, not anymore.

“You took from me!” The four words shook as they came out of her mouth. He didn’t want to hear anymore, he couldn’t bare it. He listened. “I don’t have any love left. There is no-one around me to ask for my love. And who’s going to love me? I need love and no-one’s going to love me. And…and…there must be a reckoning for that.”

She slammed her hands down onto the table; she drew up her fists and held them to the sides of her face, as if she was waiting for another blow, a final one to finish her. “There must be a reckoning.” Those were her final words, the ones she had settled upon. That was the end of it.

She stared at him a good long time. No more words now. She brought her hands down to the surface of the table, so close their fingers were almost touching. Then she withdrew and brought her hands to the top of her throat, zipping hr coat, re-adjusting he scarf. She rose in silence and drew her bag to her chest. He watched her as she slid out, making her way to the door. She walked out into the rain, fat drops not even making her flinch, as she marched off down the road. Off to finish what she had started here, he knew. He placed the money down on the table; saw her fingerprints on the surface. He put his own on top, trying to feel the heat of them. But there was nothing but coldness underneath. He walked out, not even looking back to waitress, even as she felt her eyes burn into his back. It had begun.

Almost without thinking he looked down to his watch. The break had ended. By now they would be asking after him, checking the toilets, the smoking area. The first stab to his chest; maybe that was the first place she was heading to. She may have been following him for days, for all he knew. He had supplied her with the name, offered her the rope, the weapon, to do the job; all that was left was for her to decide how quick and how hard she wanted to act.

The rain grew heavier, pushing him into shops, into archways. Overhead a plane roared, blocking out all other sounds. He closed his eyes and imagined where it was heading, what the place had to offer; it was his favourite pastime-planes, trains, cars with foreign number plates; all those forms of escape. It flashed into his mind, and then broke apart as an idea; he did not have the money, the means. Even a passport was out of reach. The plane hurtled on, leaving him behind. He felt the tears falling and was glad for the rain as he looked up into the sky.

The rain grew heavier, so he stepped inside a bar. He ordered a whiskey and for a moment almost laughed at the idea of the bar man asking him for an ID. He took his drink to the corner, by the window and sipped it. The sting was so strong it almost made him gag. He, who had sworn never to drink again. The new life in tatters now and gone. He looked around to all the old men, nursing their bitters, rifling through the newspapers. Tomorrow he could be on the front page, all over again. Before and after, hunter, hunted.

The bar was a hang out for students in the area. On a night out, the only one he had risked, they had ended up here. He had watched fascinated at the energy of them all, the wildness in the way they laughed, the casualness with how they screamed and moved. It had reminded him of how he was as a kid, everything unchecked. Later, a girl had kissed him for no other reason than he was there and had not tried to make a move on her. She span away soon after and he was already forgotten, even as he reached after her. He withdrew though; no scenes, no attention, those were his rules. His was face already burning from the cheers of the workmates and something else, too. The electricity of his first kiss.

He finished his drink and laid the money he had out on the table. He thought about risking going back to the house, but decided against it. Instead, he pulled his jacket close, turned up the collar and pushed the hat over his head. The bar man acknowledged him as he left and he nodded back. Tomorrow, he thought bitterly, that exchange will be on the news, in the papers. The barman, barely older than himself, would make money out of it, maybe girls. All for a casual wave of the hand.

The rain grew heavier, melting the cars that drove by, blurring the shops into one mess of bricks. He walked to his favourite food shop and bought himself treats that he normally reserved for the weekends. He walked into the bookies and bet on horses in the closest three races. All of them lost, but he felt the exhilaration of following them, all the same. After it was over he bought a coffee from the machine in the corner and ate his food as he circled more races he had no intention of gambling on. The whiskey wore off, the buzz faded. He finished his food and pitched the drink into the bin. He had gambled; another small dream realised from the list.

As he walked to the bookshop he wondered about the factory. By now the black mark would have gone against him, a phone call may have been placed to the flat. The fact he did not own a mobile was a source of amusement to the factory men, as was his ignorance of the internet, even as they jostled him into the corner to watch some sex film or real life accident. He went along with it, minute’s later sick in the toilets, remembering to wipe his mouth, grateful for the gum he always carried. Sometimes he wondered if he used the gum without realising it, to wipe the taste of the lies he steadily told, somehow keeping his mouth fresh, his words clean and undetected.

He stepped inside the bookshop, the old bell ringing over his head as he entered. A man was at the counter and his heart half sank, half beat stronger; what would he have said to her? The chance to have said anything to her. He walked into the aisles, looking idly at all the books he would never have the chance to read now. All that time, reading and learning, enveloping him, offering him so many windows of escape. The stories so clear and crisp, absorbing every one of them, making them a part of his own life, building a childhood he would never have.

Her voice came from the left, as a door opened. She returned from her lunch break; spoke to the man who left the counter. She answered the phone and helped a customer; her name was Joanna. At the end of the conversation she gently laughed and then placed the phone back in the cradle. He listened, rocking on his heels with her laugh, even the knowledge of her name. With his last act, he took the book from the shelf, the one he knew and loved above all else, and took it to the counter.

She acknowledged him, smiled and took the book. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a smile she provided for all the customers. He was just another stranger passing through her day and out of her life. This he knew. She made a joke about the weather and slipped the book inside a bag and then another. It was a simple thing to do, but thoughtful and something others would not do. The little actions of grace and kindness that set people apart. He handed over the money and thanked her, then peeled back into the aisle, the phone ringing and distracting her.

He crouched in the aisle as she spoke, took the pen and notepad he carried in his pocket at all times; the book had been a warning, a guide of notes and single-word reports to sustain his lies, to keep his new life intact. Now, at last, he could use it for a good thing. He wrote her name at the top, wrote the words below it. Then, he slipped the book out of the bag and set it squarely on the floor, the note resting on top. It was a small gesture, but everything in the world to him, now. He walked out of the shop, nodding to her, she returning the nod, the phone still cradled under her jaw as she checked the computer screen. Then, like that, it was over.

He pushed the bags into the bin and walked towards the pier. There was no money left, no other small dreams left to conquer along this small beach town road. He closed his eyes as his feet hit the sand, imagined a life with the girl, one unfettered and straightforward. Holding her hand, drinking coffee. Buying her flowers from a stall and watching films. All the small pieces that make up a simple life. All the things he had denied himself, all that time ago. The rain fell harder as he pulled off his work-boots, his socks. The wet sand settled his heart as he walked towards the waves, making him feel young again. Not that that could ever be true. He had lived a life without youth, paying for his mistake. It was what he had deserved; it was what he had accepted. Now, as he stepped into the foam, the rest of what he had to pay was due. He walked into the sea, the water exploding with each bullet of rain that impacted on the surface. It was beautiful, he decided as he waded further in. It was all beautiful, every second of it. He almost smiled as the water climbed over him, but for the woman’s eyes. Those eyes, wet and round and full. That was that filled him, over every other thing, as the water climbed higher, the rain unstoppable.

Chris Castle is English, but works in Greece. He has been published over 100 times. His influences include Ray Carver, Stephen King and the films of PT Anderson. He can be reached at

Photograph by Adam Lawrence.
Street art by Faro.

Andreya has soul that bleeds through every note of her debut album "Lost Where I Belong" which will be released this September by Ninja Tune Records.

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