Breaking the little plastic circular seal on the packaging, I took the helmet from the box: a Kookaburra, navy blue with lime green edging where the face guard was clipped on. It wasn’t the colour I’d have chosen but it was a thoughtful gift all the same. I’d been going without one after the Cheselbourne spin-bowler had got his length all wrong and sent a decapitator at me. I’d played the last few games cautious. When a shot came up high off the wicket, I didn’t let myself get tempted into attacking it, going for a scoop over my left shoulder as I usually would. Instead, I’d hung back and avoided letting the ball crack through my skull.
I opened my kit bag, and shuffled the kit around. When I stacked the pads on top of each other and shoved everything as tightly together as I could, a little gap emerged. It was just about big enough to get the helmet in upside down. The bag wouldn’t fully zip up now, around the bulge, but I wasn’t too fussed. It could flap open a bit. It was only going to get shoved into the boot of a car and I was sure I could lug it a few yards to the pavilion without everything spilling out.
Bag sorted, I had a few minutes to kill. 10.23. Roger was picking me up at 10.30 and then we had a two-and-a-bit hour run to some village, just north of Abingdon, for our Southern Counties semi-final. Play wasn’t due to start until 2pm so we’d have plenty of time. I pulled a mug from out of the cupboard and flicked the switch on the kettle. We always left water in it, ready. It began to purr into life.
‘Are you putting a brew on, love?’ Kirsty, my wife, called from the lounge. The kettle was beginning to hum and there were the closed double doors between us. I thought it easiest just to pretend I hadn’t heard her. I might have had a couple of seconds spare to stir a tea bag around a mug, but Kirsty would want the pot filling and I couldn’t be bothering with all that fuss.
The double doors clunked open and Lily’s head poked through into the kitchen-diner. ‘Did you hear Mum?’ she asked.
‘Hmm,’ I replied. I decided that pretending to be as witless as possible would be the best approach here.
‘She asked about tea. I’ll have one if you’re making as well.’
‘Well, I was just doing one for me. I’m not sure I’ve got time to do a pot. Roger’s only about five minutes away. By the time I’ve let it stand, he’ll be here.’
‘You know what Roger’s like,’ came a voice from the other room. ‘He’s always late.’ Kirsty could obviously hear me over Saturday Kitchen or whatever rubbish the girls had on in there.
‘Well, maybe,’ I called. ‘But, it is the county finals. He might want to get there early for once.’
There was a pause from the other room. ‘You can make them straight into the cups if you want to.’
Lily disappeared back through the double doors, letting them clunk behind her. The hiss of the kettle drowned out my sigh. I clinked the mugs down a little too hard on the work surface and dropped a teabag into each of them. It seemed a waste to use so many. By the time I’d poured the water in and stirred the bags around and done milk for Kirsty and milk and sugar for Lily, then dropped them through to the girls, the doorbell went. 10.28 – early.
The fug of the summer day seeped into the house. Normally, the stone-flooring kept everything cool inside but it must have been almost 30°c. Shane, a young lad of nineteen, was stood outside the lobby, his hair light in the sun.
‘Happy birthday,’ he said. ‘Maybe Roger will let you open the batting with me as a present.’
Cheeky sod. I’d be lucky to get in sixth.
‘Let’s hope you can hit as many as your age. That’ll be, what? A ton?’
‘I’m forty-seven, you bastard!’
‘Old enough to be my dad.’ He grinned, his teeth all crooked and already nicotine stained. If he weren’t so cocky and looked after himself a little better, he could be playing cricket at a much higher level. He wasn’t wrong, though. I have a son a year older than him: Niall, off at university in Birmingham.
Shane thrust a card forwards which I only now realised he had been holding the whole time. ‘Anyway, hope you’re having a good one, you old fart.’
‘Cheers.’ I let out a little sniff laugh and took the card from him. ‘Why don’t you come in a second? I’ve got to grab my bag and get my shoes on and stuff.’
‘Do your hair?’ he said pointing at my bald patch.
He followed me into the hallway and stood scuffing his shoes on the floor whilst I thumbed open the card. ‘I didn’t get you anything with it. Sorry,’ he said, serious for the first time.
I thought about the 50p-an-hour wage they probably paid him for his plumbing apprenticeship and those ankle swinging cricket trousers he always wore to games, frayed at the bottoms. ‘That’s alright,’ I said. ‘You didn’t have to get me anything. Anyway, I’ll just be a minute.’
I left him milling about in the hallway, kicking his feet whilst I went through to the lounge. I stuck the card on the mantel piece with the others and kissed Lily and Kirsty goodbye. ‘Be sensible,’ Kirsty called after me. ‘And enjoy the cricket.’ I said I’d try (a reply to both commands), and then headed through the double doors back into the kitchen and grabbed my overnight bag and the sport’s holdall which wasn’t quite zipped right. My mug of tea was still sat there on the side, steam rising slowly from it. I sighed. I didn’t have time for it. I slipped on some flip-flops and headed out the door.
Roger was parked three houses down at an awkward angle, two wheels skewed on the pavement, the engine still running. Shane shouted shotgun and bundled himself into the front seat whilst I dumped my bags in the boot. ‘I don’t think so,’ said Roger. ‘Senior citizens only in the front.’
‘Oi, I’m not as old as you,’ I said, taking my seat through the door which Shane had left open as he climbed over the gear stick to get into the back.
‘Not yet. How long until your fiftieth, though?’
‘Three years.’ It really didn’t seem so far away when I said it out loud.
Both chipped in with a response at the same time so that I couldn’t quite work out who said what:
I thought you were well past fifty already.
Three years? You’ll be lucky to score as many runs today.
They both laughed and Roger pulled the car away from the roadside.
As we left town, the sun, which had been tucked away behind the houses, came streaming in through the windows. I could feel the uncomfortable stick of sweat at the base of my spine, causing my t-shirt to slip beneath the waistband of my shorts and bind itself to my lower back. I shifted uncomfortably to loosen my seatbelt and then tugged at the soggy scrunch of t-shirt. It came free for a second but, as soon as I slumped back in my chair, I could feel it against my back once more. ‘Turn the air conditioning on, would you, Rog?’ I asked.
He snorted. ‘Air con? This is England, not LA! No air con in our cars!’
‘Well, there’s air con in my car.’
‘Yeah, I’ve even got some in my little boy racer,’ butted in Shane.
‘Alright, well this car doesn’t have it because it’s a classic.’
‘It’s a Honda Jazz…’
‘Honda Vajazzle, more like.’
‘Look, just roll the window down. Once we get up to sixty, you’ll soon cool down.’
‘Can this even get up to sixty?’ That was Shane again. He always liked to have the last word.
Roger gripped the wheel and pretended to sulk whilst I cranked the handle for the window. It opened in stages, clunking slowly down, causing my ears to pop with each twist of the handle as they adjusted to the changing air pressure. There was a sucking sound as the window came below the seal and air which had been trapped in the car started to leak out. Then, as the gap widened, new air came billowing in, causing everything made of fabric in the car to flap about. That made things a bit better. The sun was still hot on the skin of my arm, which rested where the window had been, but the wind brought a coolness with it.
Shane was in the back, faffing about on his phone, and Roger was focusing on the blind, hedge-lined bends of the lane, so there was no pressure for conversation. I lay back, a little more relaxed in the breeze, and closed my eyes.
I suppose I must have drifted off for a bit as we were near Andover before I opened my eyes again. ‘What do you make of our chances, then?’ Roger was asking, but I didn’t quite hear him first time. I was too groggy from my half-sleep, and he had to repeat himself.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, somehow aware of the taste of my own mouth as I spoke. ‘It’s village cricket. They’re not in our league. I’ve not really heard much about them.’
‘Well, we ought to smash them.’ From the rear-view mirror I could see that, though Shane was talking to us, his eyes were still fixed on his phone. ‘We won our league.’
‘Yes, but so did they.’
‘Huh?’ Shane grunted. His attention was back on his phone.
‘Well, that’s the point in this regional tournament. Every team in it won their county league.’ Roger was using a patronising sort of tone, talking slowly, and elongating the last syllable of each of word – as if Shane struggled to understand the basic premise of the tournament.
I craned my head all the way around to gauge Shane’s reaction. I liked the kid, but he could be a bit of a knob and it was good to see him cut down to size every now and then. He huffed and momentarily lowered his phone. I could see his tongue working its way around the inside of his cheeks. His right eye narrowed and, for a moment, he was genuinely still – pensive looking. I thought, for once, he might say something wise. ‘We’ve got me, though, haven’t we?’ were the words which eventually left his mouth. That was the extent of his wisdom.
‘Yeah, but we’ve got Jason too. You’ll have to keep your eye in all game, Shane,’ Roger replied.
‘Oi, it is my birthday, you know!’
‘What’s your average for the season, anyway?’ Shane asked.
‘Piss off,’ I replied.
‘No, I’m serious. I’m not expecting it to be as good as mine.’ His was forty-nine across the season – far better than most players, although not wholly impressive when you consider the standard of most of our opposition: Chickerell has a seventy-two-year-old playing for them, and Langton Matravers field a man of thirty stone. ‘I was just wondering, is all,’ he continued.
‘If you must know, it’s infinite,’ I said, feeling a little smug at my quick thinking.
‘Infinitely shit.’ That was Roger.
‘What do you mean, infinite?’
‘Well, I’ve batted twice this season. Seven not out and four not out.’
‘You haven’t got an average, then,’ said Roger.
‘No, I’ve hit eleven runs in zero innings. Don’t you get infinity when you divide by zero?’
‘Don’t look at me,’ Shane said shrugging. ‘I didn’t do maths in school.’ Part of me thought he might not be joking. Shane was quick witted, but he wasn’t what you would call academically gifted.
‘Yeah, well I still do it every day and I can tell you that your average is undefined,’ Roger chipped in. I’d forgotten that he was a bloody maths teacher.
Our conversations went round in these sorts of circles for a while after that. One of us would make a statement and the others would keep picking at it until the first person looked a fool. That’s just the way we were. I often thought that most of our team was into cricket for the sledging rather than the actual game.
The casual bickering didn’t really stop until we pulled into the McDonalds at Tothill Services, Roger somehow managing to park across two spaces. And, even then, the halt was only brief. I ordered myself a Quarter Pounder – the safest option, I thought, for someone who rarely ate fast food. Roger got himself a wrap and this little side-salad; I was surprised to see that it came with red onion and some cutlery. Shane’s order was, frankly, ridiculous. He went for the whole shebang: milkshake, Big Mac, fries, cheese dippers and a 20 box of nuggets. ‘I’m not sharing,’ he said as he plonked himself down at the table. He wasn’t even fat: that was the depressing fact. There he was, pumping himself full of saturates and he was still thin as you like. Long gone were the days when I could do that. I’d get fat from bloody fasting.
Soon enough the rest of the team arrived. We ate and talked and sorted out a loan pair of pads for Smithy – who’d left his at home – before planning to head out again in convoy. As we all squeezed out of the McDonald’s, Shane announced that he needed a trip to the gents. It made sense, I guess, after the amount he’d consumed.
A full fifteen minutes he was in there, leaving Roger and I twiddling our thumbs in the car. Roger got so hot and bothered and bored that he nipped back into McDonalds and brought us each a strangely whipped ice cream so that we could cool off.
‘Just my bloody luck, eh,’ announced Roger as Shane eventually came sauntering out of the toilets. ‘First in and last out.’
‘They’re going to want to let that breathe a bit,’ said Shane, curling up his nose and wafting the air behind himself. ‘I’ve wrecked the joint.’
We made a hasty departure after that and got back onto the road. It shouldn’t have been a long run but, a few miles up the A34, the car in front of us pulled up to a sudden halt. The hazard lights went on. Roger saw it late and had to slam on the breaks. We all lurched forwards in our seats. I heard a thud and the muttering of some four-letter word as Shane’s phone flew from his hands and hit the back of my head rest. The cars behind us pulled into the fast lane, hoping to avoid their own spine-juddering experience, but it wasn’t long before that side was blocked up too and the whole road had ground down to a stand-still.
‘The hell’s going on?’ muttered Roger.
‘Someone better have died!’ said Shane. ‘I’ve cracked my phone!’
‘It’s just Saturday traffic,’ I chipped in. ‘This road is crap. There are always little hold ups. We’ll be going again soon.’
‘Saves us being an hour early for the game, anyway.’
Minutes passed and no cars moved. I became very aware of the fact that no one had passed on the southbound road either. Further ahead, we could hear the slamming of doors and people began milling around in the middle of the carriage ways, craning their heads to see what was going on up ahead.
‘Screw this, I’m getting out for a look,’ said Shane, reaching for the door handle.
‘There’s no point,’ I said. ‘We’ll probably be going again in a second.’
‘I won’t go far – don’t worry yourself granddad. I just want to take a look. And get out of this car. I’m boiling!’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to check,’ said Roger, switching off the engine.
Shane slid out of the back, and I must admit that I was relieved by the breeze that opening the door let in. I watched him pace forwards until he was just in the edge of my sight. He obviously couldn’t see anything; he shrugged dramatically to the car. Rather than come back, however, he got out his phone and made a call. In the meantime, anticipating the fact that we might be staying put for a while, I clambered into the back and grabbed a book from my holdall in the boot. I opened it up and stayed on the backseat – where the open door was keeping things cooler.
After a couple of minutes, Shane let himself back in next to me. ‘I rang the others. They’re all clear of it and have no idea what’s going on. Pete and his lot are already there. He said he’d google A34 and let us know what was going on.’
As he finished speaking, a young woman approached the car and knocked on the driver’s window. She was in ordinary clothes – obviously not official – and spoke to us in heavily accented English; I’d have guessed she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. She told us to pull further onto the grass bank beside us – no hard shoulder here. Instinctually, we felt obliged to believe her and did as she asked. And then, she disappeared further down the line, and I took to my reading. The next time I looked up from my book, she was walking back through the crush of stationary cars. It wasn’t long after that that the sirens started and an ambulance, followed by police, came through.
‘Finally,’ said Roger. ‘Now, hopefully stuff can get moving again.’ He checked the clock on the dashboard. ‘We should still be alright for time. If you tell Pete to bat first, that would probably buy us a bit of safety too.’ Shane pulled out his phone and did just that.
‘Just think,’ said Shane, sounding genuinely pensive. He left a long pause. ‘If I hadn’t needed the loo, none of this would be happening. We’d be long past all this. The bowels, eh? What a wonder!’
‘Fifteen minutes you were in there, you selfish bastard,’ said Rog.
‘Yeah, well, I’m not the one holding us up now, am I? You can’t blame me for that. Anyway, it’s just as well I did go when I did. If we’d been stuck in this and I hadn’t, I’d have made a mess of your car. And you’d have been the one to clean it up, Rog.’
I lowered my book below eye level. ‘But we wouldn’t have been stuck in this, would we?’ I said. ‘We’ve already established that.’
Shane pretended to sulk. ‘Alright, Professor, with your “establisheds” and your books.’
Everything was quiet for a bit after that and I shifted around ten pages or so. It was hard to focus on reading. Emergency vehicles came through sporadically and engines kept switching on or off. The heat was just as oppressive as before. I could feel the pages of my book sagging from the sweat of my hands.
And then, from seemingly nowhere, things started moving again. It happened very slowly – a crawl. Those in the right hand lane went and our lane had to filter in one-by-one. We followed suit.
As we passed a few yards, we found the reason for why we’d been stopped. To our left were the fleet of emergency vehicles and in front of them, a man in bike leathers. He was lying there, very still. Out of context, you might have mistaken him for a sleeper, but he was in the middle of the road and streaks of blood, near purple on the hot tarmac, lead from him to the central reservation. I could see a dent in the metal barrier where he must have smashed over it and his motorbike was over on the other side of the carriage way. He must have been going south bound, must have lost control. Judging from how scattered everything was, he’d have been going at some speed.
A police officer was directing cars whilst the ambulance team prepped equipment. The cars in front of us were ushered through and then the officer held both arms outstretched towards our car. She walked around to the passenger window, which was already rolled down to combat the heat, and poked her head through. ‘It’s going to be a bit of a hold up, I’m afraid. The ambulance crew are ready to do their thing.’ I could see stretchers behind her, and machinery being laid out on the road.
Roger switched off the engine as she walked away. ‘Just our bloody luck,’ he muttered. ‘Looks like we’re in for the long haul, boys.’ He pulled out his phone and held it at face height.
‘You’re not going to film it?’ Shane asked. I was surprised by that question. For the first time ever, the unflappable Shane seemed shocked.
‘No, I’m bloody not,’ said Roger. ‘I’m checking the football scores. Got to see how Plymouth are getting on.’
‘He’s old. That’s how he has to hold his phone,’ I explained. ‘Watch the way he taps the buttons with one finger. He even has his tongue out whilst he does it!’
We all sniggered. And then I looked out the window. They had the helmet off the man, and everything was very real. I hadn’t been able to process the severity of the situation before. With the helmet on, he was just debris in the road. But now, he was surreally human – his face bluish, grey. If I’d allowed myself to look closely enough, I might have been able to make out the colours of his eyes. We couldn’t have been more than ten yards away from him.
A paramedic set about snipping off the man’s leather jacket.
‘They’re going to cover him up, right?’ It was Shane speaking. I’d assumed that he would have been fiddling about on his phone like Roger but he wasn’t. ‘They’ll put a screen around him or something. It’s not right – us being able to see it and all.’
Roger just grunted. He was only half listening, frustrated to see that Plymouth were trailing 2-1.
They didn’t cover him. Once the jacket was off, they stared CPR. I thought I could see him twitching. His lips certainly seemed to be trembling, his mouth open; but perhaps that was just due to the air they were forcing out. The paramedics weren’t pleased with the results, either way. One of those auto-CPR machines was placed on him. It was strangely hypnotic watching him in there. He was clearly middle-age, with the bloat that came with it, and his whole body convulsed with each pump of the machine.
I think they kept him in there for a full ten minutes but I could not allow myself to watch all of it. I kept my head down and pretended to look at my book whilst Roger read out a barrage of half-time scores. I would scan a few words, but they wouldn’t go in or my eyes would drift upwards, and I had to keep flicking back to the start of the sentence.
And then they abandoned the CPR.
‘He’s dead, then,’ I said, not sure of what else to say.
‘He’d have been dead as soon as he hit the ground,’ said Roger. ‘This was all just a formality.’
I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to say that I’d seen a bit of life in his eyes when they’d first attempted resuscitation, but I didn’t.
‘Will they cover him up now?’ Shane asked. He was looking out of the window.
‘I don’t know.’
‘They ought to. He’ll bloody cook in this weather, like a fried egg on a car bonnet.’ Roger gave a little snort after saying this. I wasn’t sure I fancied laughing along with him.
As Shane had hoped, a cover was placed over the man, but that didn’t make things much better. He was still there. The little white sheet made no difference. I could still make out his outline through it – the helmetless head, the bloat of his belly.
The police officer came back to the car window, this time handing out bottled water. ‘It’ll be a while longer, I’m afraid. The crash investigator has to do his work yet.’
After she’d gone, Roger tapped about on his phone a bit more to check the time. ‘We’ll never make it in time now. I’ll have to give Pete a call.’
Roger was right. We never made it to the game. The investigator spent well over an hour taking pictures and distance measurements whilst we sat and sweated it out. We didn’t even bother driving to the ground, just kept going north into Oxford and checked into our hostel with the rest of the boys.
‘At least, this way, we can start off in the pub early,’ said Roger. ‘It seemed a shame to let a match of cricket get in the way of a good night of drinking, anyway.’
There were four to a room which we divided up largely based on car groups. Shane, Roger, and Brian – our spin-bowler who’d driven by himself (down from a family-do in Birmingham) – all went in with me. There were two sets of bunkbeds with a double bed at the bottom of just one of them, illogically enough, so we all drew lots for who got what. I was supposed to be on a top bunk but, as birthday boy, Brian insisted that Shane had to give up his double bed for me. I expected an argument – for Shane to roll his shoulders and sneer, making some comment about how I’d need to stretch out my old legs. But, Shane didn’t say anything. He just nodded assent.
After we’d stowed our gear, we all headed out. Pete had planned some ridiculous, sprawling pub crawl: twelve holes, a drink in each, so we could get ‘absolutely wasted’ – his words, not mine. Of course, we didn’t stick to the plan. By 8pm we were still in the beer garden of the first pub, sat at benches around a few tables we’d pushed together, already a good four pints in. Tom – one of the younger members of the team – was on his sixth and had taken to playing this game where he tried to chuck a penny into an unsuspecting team-mate’s glass. If he got the penny in, they were supposed to see off their drink.
I sat there with my hand on the top of my glass. I had a full pint and didn’t like the idea of having to neck it. I was too old for that sort of thing. I didn’t much like the idea of where that penny had been either. I thought of all the backwash there must have been in all those glasses.
He got Roger first. The coin clinked off the rim, and sent suds flying into the air. Tiny bubbles floated to the top of the glass and the penny descended before settling on the bottom. Tom got Pete after that, and then spent the next ten minutes trying to outfox Brian.
It was whilst he was pestering Brian that I became careless. I loosened my grip on the top of my glass – let a circular gap form where my thumb hang limp and to the side. The penny, flicked into the air, hit my knuckle and rolled into the glass.
There was a roar from the team: brays and chants. Hands patted Tom on the back. I sat nervously eyeing the fizzing coin in my cup. The last time we’d taken a trip out and I’d started downing drinks, things had got messy fast. My stomach was not as cast-iron as it had been twenty-or-so years before when I was in uni. I’d been sick until well into the afternoon the next day and, though Kirsty had mercifully failed to bring the event back up, I knew she hadn’t forgotten it. I certainly hadn’t.
Brian tried to play the saviour. He repeated all the birthday spiel from earlier – said I couldn’t possibly be expected to down the whole thing at my age. It was Shane, however, who intervened. He’d been perched in a corner with glazed eyes for most of the evening, but now he reached out and took the pint from in front of me. In four great chugs, he swallowed the lot and then slammed his glass down on the table.
There was no coin left in the suds.
‘Did you swallow the penny?’ I think it was Roger who asked that.
Shane looked down at the empty glass. His eyes were just as glazed as before.
‘Should we do the Heimlich or something?’ asked Tom.
Shane shrugged and shook his head. He pushed his way back from the table, before walking in the direction of the toilets. I guess we all just assumed that he was going to try to make himself throw it up, but no one bothered to go with him. Tom had already fished another penny out of his pocket.
We drank and larked about for a while after that until we were all down to about the last mouthful of (at least) our fifth pint. Roger made an announcement: ‘Well, before we go, I’d like to raise a toast.’ Everyone lifted their glasses in anticipation. ‘To the man on the A34 for buying us an extra hour and a half in the pub. Who wanted to play cricket anyway?’
There were a few drunken laughs and cries of ‘here, here’ but I didn’t fancy joining in.
I left my pint unfinished on the table when we set off for the next pub. Shane wasn’t with us. Brian said he’d checked in the toilet, but he hadn’t been there. He must have wandered off somewhere on his own.
Across the rest of the night we went to two more pubs and then for a curry at around eleven. I was back in the hostel, in bed by midnight, feeling the worse for wear, though I hadn’t kept pace with the other drinkers. Roger and Brian practically passed out the moment their heads hit the pillow, but sleep didn’t come so easily for me. I lay about, fiddling with my phone, sending a goodnight message to Kirsty. I’m not sure when exactly I did drop off.
I was woken at three thirty in the morning by a crack of light in the doorway. Shane was stood there, one foot in, one foot out of the room. His face was half lit so that those features I could see seemed very pale and his one eye didn’t seem glazed like it had before; it was puffy and bloodshot. He stood there like that for a full minute, just staring blankly into the room and letting the fug out. Then, as if coming in a stagger back to some state of semi-consciousness, he shuffled in and switched on one of the lamps at a bedside table. None of those in the other bunkbed stirred.
Inside the room, Shane wrestled with his clothes. His t-shirt came off easily enough, but he still had his shoes on and his jeans got caught around his ankles. He made countless attempts to be free of them, tugging harder and harder until he caused his own knee to jerk out from beneath himself and he toppled to the floor. Lying with his feet in the air, he managed to roll the legs down over the shoes; then he pulled those off and strew them across the room. He only stood again when he was down to just his pants, and he hooked those down his legs with his thumb.
He stood eyeing up the ladder to his top bunk for some time. On his first attempt to scale it, he made it up two rungs before he fell forwards, banged cheek first into the metal bedstead and fell back in a heap on the floor. At this point, I sat up, thinking he might be hurt. No one else in the room stirred, and Shane just got himself straight back up.
Once more, Shane stood perfectly still before coming over to my double-bed. He sat at first, bare arse on the duvet, before lying down. It was strange the way he lay – on his back, head below pillow height so that his body was completely flat.
I thought that he’d decided to play some sort of joke – get in bed with the old boy and try to make him uncomfortable. ‘Piss off will you,’ I hissed. ‘I’m trying to get some sleep.’
He didn’t reply but rolled onto his side so that he was facing me across the bed.
‘This is my bed, you know.’
It took him a long time to reply and, when he did, it was as if he hadn’t heard what I had said. ‘It was strange seeing him like that.’ There was a pause, as if he was giving me take-up time, to work out whatever thread of conversation he was dangling out. But I knew instantly who he’d meant. I’d felt the same way myself.
‘Do you think Roger was right?’ he asked, and it was as if he was responding to something I’d said, though I hadn’t spoken. I wondered the same thing myself. Had we watched that man die?
When he’d first stood in the doorway, all still with those bloodshot eyes, I’d thought that Shane was on pills or something. But, sat close to him in that bed, I knew why they’d looked so puffy. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
‘He was dead already,’ I said, and then clambered over him to get out of the bed. ‘Get some sleep, Shane. I’ll get up in your bunk.’ And, I did. I switched the lamp off and I climbed up onto the top bunk. It felt strange lying there, knowing that Shane was below – his eyes staring up through the slats of the bed and the fabric of the pillow and into the back of my head. He – like me – was wondering if I’d lied to him.
We didn’t talk about that moment the next morning. It didn’t come up in the debrief over the fry up. We didn’t talk about it on the drive, either. When asked what he’d gotten up to on his own, Shane merely flashed the back of his hand and the club stamp on it.
And, when I got home, I didn’t mention it to Kirsty or the kids. It was best not to worry them. When they asked about the cricket, I just said that the other team had cancelled. He was a stranger and he was dead; they didn’t need to know about it. I was okay. My life was going on.
By the end of the month, I’d nearly forgotten about the whole thing – that was, until I got a WhatsApp message from Shane. There were no words in it, just a link. I clicked it and saw the headline: ‘Motorcyclist dies on A34’. I read the article, barely taking in the details. But one thing did strike me. He’d been forty-six; it had been my forty-seventh birthday. I remember thinking that he would never be that old now.
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For more writing by Daniel Tovey, read ‘Day by Daylily‘.