Thursday, 18 July 2013
Crossroads (4 of 5)
I wake early on the morning after the fire and am filled with a feeling I can't describe. Everything I'd worked for over the past five years had gone. There was nothing left.
A couple of hours later, I meet Our Kid at the corner caff. I usually eat cereal, but after last night's events, I'm in the mood to throw caution to the wind. I go to the hatch and order two large coffees and a couple of egg and bacon baps.
We sit outside around a dirty wooden table for a fair while and take in the sights of the early morning market. All around us shutters are being opened, boxes unloaded from the back of white vans, cheap clothes being hung from plastic hangers and placed on display under hastily written 'ANY 2 ITEMS - £10' signs. It's a scene we were usually a part of. But not today. We've got nothing more to sell.
A steady stream of traders make their condolences as they order their breakfasts in preparation for a busy day.
'Really sorry about the fire, twins.'
'Gutted for you boys.'
'All your stock gone eh lads? Can't fuckin' believe it! Lost a fair few readies an' all I hear?'
'If you need anyone you two, you know where we are.'
We listen to the usual mix of genuine upset, touching concern and vacuous bullshit, and decide to sit a little longer with another brew. There's no hurry.
The tensions and heightened emotions of the previous evening have mellowed into something slightly calmer. If this is how losing everything feels, I think, then losing everything doesn't feel so bad.
Eventually we make our way down the top aisle. Red and white tape cordons off an area a few hundred yards long. On the other side of the tape, the remains of a dozen or so shop units and shipping containers smoulder. Angular bare limbs of metalwork stand twisted, bent by unthinkable heat to the shapes of dented dreams.
The stench of fire is still strong. We poke about the blackened unit in the same way we'd prod sticks at bonfires as kids. Market bars and wire dump bins have melted to the concrete they stood on. Thousands of pounds' worth of children's toys are now just ash.
By the back wall, a yellow kiss of colour catches my eye. I walk over to take a look. I know what it is before I get there, but I need just to double check.
Reaching down, I pick up the little yellow sports car. The headlights are broken and the side doors have melted shut, but, in the midst of devastation, it's remained remarkably intact. I turn it over and slide open the battery compartment, clocking the two Duracells inside. Then, hoping for a sign, I slide it shut, press a button on the side on the car, OFF to ON, and place it on the floor.
The car springs to life. Its wheels rotate and it careers around in a crazy, hypnotic bump 'n' go action. Then it stops.
But only for a second.
I'm waiting for headlights to flash, doors to open and the roof to retract like I'd seen so many times in previous weeks. But not this time.
Instead, accompanied by warped music, a mutant, whining slow-mo voice starts repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song.
'I'm a Barbie girl
In a Barbie world,
Life in plastic
As suddenly as it's started, the sound cuts to silence.
I glance up from the car to look at Our Kid. He's smiling.
A small crowd has gathered. Stallholders. Some who've lost it all, like us. Others who have been lucky.
Mr King from across the aisle downs the dregs of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and says, 'Isn't that amazing?'
I nod, thinking the same as all of us. In a fire which had destroyed all before it, by a miracle this one little yellow plastic car had remained relatively unscathed.
Mr King squashes the cup in his right hand as I look back down at the car. A piece of worthless plastic. A sign that, whatever, we'd be fine.
'So, what you going to do next?' he asks.
My eyes rise to meet his. 'I don't know,' I tell him, 'I just don't know.'
I run along the seafront that night, back from work to the small house I rent in Chapel with my new wife and our year-old son. I'm unsure why I feel compelled to do so - after all, I've barely run a step in years. But it just seems right.
There's no hurry. The sun skids off the sea's surface, reflecting rainbows and memories.
I'd returned from The Run For Africa early, my dignity intact. 'A clash of personalities' I tended to refer to my failure as due to, although the official line was different. In a press release and during an interview with the Daily Mail, the expedition leader cited the reasons for my withdrawal from the project as 'mental problems'. Devastated, but brave, I clung on for several months, teaching part-time whilst joining my brother as partner in his market business.
But the black night would always come. It was written.
I owe my life to an elderly gentleman I met for the first, and only, time on a lonely beach. And to four flippant words that gifted me a realisation that I just could not give up. 'Keep it up, son,' he'd told me. 'Keep it up.'
There's always calmness after a storm. Once the dark clouds had burst, life was hard, but different. The air had a new clarity. I'd been to a place where many people go, but some never return. I'd been there, stared at the impossible blackness and been saved by a single spark. I knew something now - a knowledge that could only help me grow. No matter what happened in the future, nothing would ever be so bad. For the rest of my life, I knew nothing could ever take me back.
And I felt this, believed in this, despite the noise that continued to grow louder. That continued to taunt me like a painful tooth. Background noise. A tinnitus ringing. The sound of fire.
From the earliest age, I knew I would find her. Be patient, stay around, and the paths we chose at our own crossroads would bring us together. We'd met in the summer of 1999. We'd married in the winter of 2001. A year later, a beautiful boy had been born.
Love brings happiness. My addiction fell away.
For the last five years, running had ceased to be important. I'd filled my days with getting somewhere. Business had been good. Me and Our Kid knew how to work and work breeds success. Impossibly long hours brought days that were absolutely full of not much, but the monetary rewards were outstanding. After a lifetime of being skint, it felt good to have money.
But money is pressed by sacrifice, and recently I'd begun to question the morality of the motives of a chase for more. I'd no desire for the ostentatious shit of success, and now we'd earn enough to live a simple, but comfortable, life, the thought of grafting as hard as I had done for the foreseeable future made me uneasy. 'The most precious gift you can give a child is your time', I'd read somewhere, and that phrase would niggle at me more and more as I left my loved ones before dawn, not to return till way past dark.
Decisions are hard to make, however - even if you know you're right. The inertia of living is a powerful force. Fortunately, sometimes decisions are made for you.
We'd watched our livelihoods burn last night, and although there had been arguments and tears, for the most part we'd viewed the tragic spectacle with the same detachment as we had last November as we'd supped a couple of pints while watching the fireworks.
'Everything we have is in that fire,' we'd said to countless well-wishers and the odd gloating, nosy bastard who's own lives were so dull they got their kicks through the misfortune of others. 'Everything we've worked so hard for is in there.'
It happens, though, that words and feelings are different. And just what was I feeling? As Our Kid shadow-boxed his way across the car-park at 2 am, as his yells of 'Keep On Burning!' echoed around the now-deserted complex, as our laughter pinballed between the huge steel legs of the Millenium Roller Coaster, just what was I feeling?
It's a perfect late August night. A lovely night for a run. As I slowly clip off the miles, the realisation comes that I've been given yet another chance. I did things better this time round, but they still weren't right. How will I use this clean slate?
Lost in a whirl of probable and improbable scenarios, a phrase appears in my head, as they often used to back in the days when I was a runner.
I hold it for a while, toss it around, explore it. In my past it had been aimed at me with such negative connotations. I wonder why it's here, now, of all times?
But in the next few thousand steps, I understand.
At this moment - on this evening - for the first time in my life, I am just running. Before I've always wanted something from it - escape, a boost to my ego, transcendence on the step. Now, for the first time, I ask for nothing. Now, for the first time, I think of home and realise I've everything already.
After years of looking for something in the miles I'd covered, I've finally found what I really needed in some place totally different. Those miles were, indeed, empty.
Things are not the same as they were. I feel it. I hear it in the slow, laboured footfall of an out-of-shape man who used to be a runner, but isn't anymore.
Right then, I know that I'll run much more. That this totally pointless act of putting one foot in front of the other will be important again. And I wonder, now I'm no longer looking, just how surprised I'll be at what I find?
The phrases we repeated last night enter my head again as the sun sinks lower.
'Everything we have is in that fire.'
'We've lost everything.'
But now I know it's not true. This first short run in five years has taught me that. What we lost last night was just paper and plastic. Cardboard and glass. The phony promise of a future I didn't care for. The chains that bound me. What we lost last night was nothing.
And the feeling I had when I watched it all go? That was the joy of freedom. A freedom derived from the knowledge that love is everything, that love is the meaning of it all, and the rest of it - the money, the job, the house, the stuff you surround yourself with - well, the rest of it doesn't matter one bit.
I reach the dip at Chapel Pullover and turn off the seafront to head through the village, dodging the prams and mobility scooters littering the front of amusement arcades.
This road I'm on, I wonder, where will it take me?
Perhaps it's better not to know.
And right now, it doesn't matter either. Right now, I'm going home.