RUNNER UP What Comes Next
I was thirty years old and living by the coast. I liked to leave the curtains open in the evenings, watch the gathering winter shadows. One night I stood on the cliff edge and screamed at the tide in its carelessness and strength to be still. The next morning I woke on the floor of the kitchen, the door still wide to the wind.
(The future is a friend you can’t trust. It’ll let you drink its whisky, watch its television, it’ll sing jukebox songs with you past midnight and laugh at your shit jokes. But all the while the future will be whispering in your dreams about success and failure, hope or its absence. And who needs a friend like that?)
I’d watch my reflection in the cracked bedroom mirror, moving, twisting, skin tightening over sinew and bone, and I’d stretch myself, reach high, try to press my palms flat to the beams. The wood was soft and spongey, damp air and salt. There was copper in the fixings of everything, its greens and blues and oranges the only colours in the world.
(The future won’t let you ignore it, no matter how hard you try. It’ll put its arm around you and say, come on, how about one more night, for old time’s sake, because what else is there in life but the future? So you’ll smile, because it’s got you, and you’ll rest your head on its shoulder and let it lead you, and you’ll even close your eyes.)
I was lucky. My uncle’s old place. Those who own clifftop houses with sea views understand the unrelenting nature of time, how the sea eats away at the land. The house was still good for twenty years or so, but no one wanted it. So he let me have it. Stay as long as you need. The place was a shell, and I crept inside, curled up tight. Waiting for the tide to take me.
(When you’re young, the future sits you down and draws a map, and on that map the route runs true: from the past through the present and into the open spaces, a strong, thick line. The future has a steady hand, and the two of you are inseparable from the start. The past? Boring. Always telling the same old stories, always singing the same old songs. The present? Nothing special. And unreliable too. Here-today-gone-tomorrow, a fair-weather friend. But the future? Look into those eyes! Endless promise. A myriad of moments, all unscripted, all waiting for your words.)
There were fifteen houses in a row. Ex-quarrymen’s residences for a sandstone seam. The quarry had been shut down years ago. Barbed wire. Electric fencing. A great big hole in the ground. I walked up there one day. Someone had dug under the fence, and I crawled through the mud to the other side. Graffiti and beer cans. Spliff-roaches and used condoms. I didn’t see a soul. There were hollows where the rainwater had gathered, and some set-back sections in the walls like ancient caves. Places to hide. I felt right at home.
(It’s never long before things get out of hand, but the future eyes you with a smile. Don’t worry! It’s all a ride! Forget the map! Who needs a plan? The future is relentless, always there, huge and unimaginable, and sometimes at night you wake from dreams that leave you shaking. But, in the morning, there’s the sun. Another day, another day, an inexhaustible supply. The future is a pusher. The future is your friend. But trust is a stained sheet you wrap yourself in each night, and it doesn’t keep you warm.)
It wasn’t even a village: pub, petrol station, Catholic church, Chinese takeaway. The pub had nothing I needed, the church even less. I’d buy tins of cut-price beans and loaves of white bread at the petrol station from lads whose nametags said Duane, Jaggs, Bozza. They didn’t seem like any kind of names to me. But sometimes there was a woman. Charley. Short, bleached hair. A silver cross around her neck. She’d nod. I’d nod back. A smile. And a smile. Back at the house I’d burn the toast, and the beans would stick to the pan. I liked the radio. The love songs made me cry.
(Quite early on, you start to come across last-times. The last time you saw that kid from school. What was his name, you know, the one who took the mouse into the exam hall? Or the last Friday night you went to the ice rink, saw that girl with the tight white jeans. Cassie, was it? Or the last time you heard your dad run up the stairs two at a time. These last-times just happen. You don’t notice them until they’re gone, and you realise your dad doesn’t run anymore, and someone tells you Cassie got knocked up at sixteen, that she’s living with a car-thief up north, and the kid from school with the mouse? He got stabbed in the neck in a fight outside a club in town. But there’s always the future, a little way ahead, saying, come one, come on, keep up! Forget all that last-time nonsense. What about the first-times? Boy, have we got some of those lined up for you!)
I decided on a routine. I’d wake at seven because my uncle’s old alarm clock was stuck like that. Coffee — instant — and an hour or more for the winter sun to rise, looking out the window over the cliffs at the distant crests of waves. Sometimes there’d be a ship, moving so slowly it seemed not to be moving at all, and I’d follow it with my finger on the pane, tracking its route until it disappeared. I’d read for the rest of the morning, books taken from a damp cardboard box in the cupboard under the stairs. Novels. Nothing I’d ever heard of. I liked their predictability, the word-after-word-after-word. Lunch — beans, toast — and then I’d paint walls most of the afternoon. That was the deal. Paint the house. Every room white. Clean it too. Fix it up. Pointless, because no one wants a house that’s going to fall into the sea, but as good a way to spend a winter as any. If I put my mind to it, I could make a tin of paint stretch a day, maybe two. Meticulous, when I want to be. There were forty-five tins next to the box of books.
(The first time you smoke a cigarette. The first time you buy a drink. The first time you take a punch and stay standing. The first time you hit back. The first time you kiss a girl and mean it. The first time you can’t get it up, but the next time you can. The first time you drive your dad’s car. The first time you crash it. The first time you watch someone roll a spliff, and hand it to you, and you take a pull, and sit back. The first wrap. The first line. The first pill. The first tab. The first time a woman says I love you, and you realise you’re a man. The first time you step off a plane and the heat hits you. The first time you sleep under the stars. The first time skinny-dipping. Renting a car. Driving through the mountains, seeing wild boars in the woods and stumbling drunk around fields until the sun comes up. Holding the people that you’re with and thinking to yourself that the life you wanted might not be here, not quite, but it’s not far away, and you’re on the right tracks, and everyone’s laughing and the future’s right there, saying, you see? You see? I told you, didn’t I? I fucking told you.)
It was the nights. Too long. Dark by four, and cold as well. There was a log fire, but no logs. Fan heaters cost a fortune to run, but I wasn’t paying for anything, so by six I’d be wrapped in a duvet on the couch with electric heat filling the room like static. No television, but the radio killed the silence. The phone-ins were a gift from God. People. Endless entertainment, as long as you don’t have to deal with them personally. A woman presented the shows. Cathleen. In my mind, she had the face of the woman from the petrol station. Blonde hair and a cross. Cathleen. Charley. What did it matter? The best nights, I’d drift off before the show finished at two. The worst nights, I’d stand at the window, forehead pressed against the glass, gripping the sill with white-knuckled fingers. Nights have always opened themselves up to me like holes in the world. The trick is to hold onto something. To not let go.
(The future has a secret it doesn’t like to share. Trickster. Chameleon. Hypnotist. Cheat. Sometimes it calls itself Destiny. Sometimes, Fate. Sometimes, Karma. Sometimes, Chaos. It doesn’t believe in narrative theory, story arcs, three-act structures or even five. Because, when it comes down to it, the future is only interested in three little words: What. Comes. Next.)
I had my first drink with my father at fifteen. He took me to his local — a place called The Bee-Keeper — and he asked me to look around. You may as well get a taste for it, he said. If you aren’t careful — and I know you aren’t — you’ll be here, or somewhere like it, most nights of your life. I stared at the bloated old blokes with their pints, their red faces, blue veins and halos of thinning hair. Vodka, I said. Nothing in it. And that’s been my drink ever since. People think it’s an affectation. Trying to be cool. But I like a drink to taste of itself. Straight vodka tastes like poison. And so it should. The pub next to the Catholic church was called The Fiddler’s Arms, and there was no one but the barman in the place. Ten-fifteen. Tuesday night. I bought a double, sat and watched it for forty-five minutes without touching the glass, then I picked it up and threw it at the huge mirror which stretched the full length of the wall behind the bar. It missed. Three of the optic bottles shattered and the barman jumped a couple of feet to his left. As a dramatic gesture, it was disappointing. I walked out the door. The night was cold. I wanted to see the horizon.
(A what-happens-next can be deceptively simple. Meeting a woman. Falling in love. Getting married and settling down. Watching your wife at a party, laughing with another man, so you take her hand, run home, make love on the polished wooden floor in celebration and relief that she married you and not someone else. Waking up at three in the morning on the sofa, cradling a no-longer-crying baby on your chest while your wife sleeps upstairs. Getting that promotion. Working so hard that on a good night, you have a drink to celebrate and on a bad night, the same. And the future’s still there, more chilled now, less get-up-and-go, more of an ocean than a river, deep and wide. But those depths are dark, with a pull to them, an undertow, when you’re out in the middle, treading water just to stay afloat.)
After I left The Fiddler’s Arms, I walked to the cliffs. There was a metal railing, about knee-height, that stretched off in both directions. I stepped over it, was on the very edge of everything in a heartbeat. In the darkness I could still make out the horizon. The ocean and the sky have different consistencies, and it’s possible to focus on the line between them, that part of the world that doesn’t exist, that doesn’t make any sense. I sat on the edge of the cliff, thinking about a day when my son was four years old and I took him to the coast. We stood where the sea meets the sand, watching the blue and the white of the water, waiting until the very last second, then we turned and ran as the dying waves chased us back up the beach. We did it again and again. On the way back to the car he asked me, where do waves come from, Daddy? so we stopped, turned around, and I pointed to the horizon. I told him it would always be there, that the waves would keep on coming, and that any time he wanted we’d come back and let them chase us up the beach. Now, on the cliffs, I was watching in the darkness for a hint of the white lips of water forming miles out to sea and rolling in, one after another. I waited for the sun to rise, for the horizon to draw itself clear against the sky.
(The future is a temperamental friend. Jealous and vindictive as well. You can spend too much time
thinking about the past, revelling in nostalgia, telling those same old stories, singing those same old
songs, and the future will look at you with cold, hard eyes. Or you can flirt too much with the present,
the everything-really-turned-out-not-too-shabby-after-all present, and the future will shake its head.
Soon enough there’ll come a night where the what-happens-next is fuelled by the future’s disdain for
your self-deception and your smug complacency. It’ll feel as if the future’s had this in store for you all
along, and when you look back, you’ll wonder how you never saw it coming.)
I’d only been to the quarry once, but I didn’t want to go to the house and listen to the radio or stare at the half-painted walls, and there was nowhere else to go. I crawled through the mud to get under the fence and I sat down in one of the crevices cut out of the high walls of stone. For the first time, I didn’t hide from the memories; I willed them to come: getting home from work; Clare going out with a friend; me and my son and the television, and a craving for a drink; but the vodka bottle’s empty — she forgot to buy another — so I strap my son into the passenger seat, five minutes to the shop, and a red Hyundai i20 being driven at forty-seven miles per hour by schoolteacher Miriam Croft — 46 years old and three-and-a-half times over the legal limit — hits the passenger side of my car as I try to take a right. The next memory has a brightness to it, as if spot-lit on stage: I’m standing in a white hospital corridor, scratches, concussion, a bruised rib. There are nurses bustling past, smiling sympathetic smiles, saying nothing, and there’s a doctor telling me my son is strong and lucky — a good combination — and that apart from a broken arm and some internal bleeding they’re dealing with, he’ll be fine. When my wife comes running through the corridor, I still don’t know that the friend she was out with wasn’t Carol but a man called Rob, and that’s why her phone was switched off for the three hours I spent dialling her number. She’s saying, where is he where is he? and as I point and try to speak she doesn’t look at me, doesn’t say a word, but keeps on running through the double doors, and I’m alone again, not in the white hospital but the damp, dark recess of a sandstone quarry, a mile from the cliffs and the sea.
(The future can do magic tricks. It has cards up its sleeve and rabbits hidden in hats. It has coloured scarves tied together in long silken rainbows which it pulls out of thin air. It can wrap itself in chains and lock itself in an old wooden box, and just as you’re sitting forward on you seat, there’s a flash, and there it is — the future — waving and smiling and dancing a jig. But the coup de théâtre is strangely subdued, a subtle affair: the stage in darkness save a single spot; the future crouched low, head bowed; you’re waiting, desperate, thinking, what the hell comes next, and the future lifts its head, meets your gaze, clicks its fingers. Disappears.)
The next day I walked to the petrol station in the rain. Beans and white bread. Charley, smiling. Break any bottles today? She’d never said more than that’ll be two-pounds-fifty-three before. Village gossip: the barman had been in to fill up his car. I’m going to pay for the damage, I said. Go down there tonight, make it right. She gave me my change. Might see you in there, she said. You can buy me a drink. And that was all. I walked to the beach, stood at the edge of the ocean, watched the waves. When I took a step towards them, I thought about taking another, and then another, about letting them wash over me. I was thirty years old. I was thinking about waves, about what would happen if they ever stopped.
Jason Jackson's prize-winning fiction has appeared recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the print anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction