Best Summer Ever
“Well it certainly ain’t this one”, said the tall policeman, rubbing the bruises on his arm so that his jacket sleeve moved like a puppet on strings. “Last summer we got a lot more villains, that’s a fact.”
“We got the Collie gang three summers ago, that were the best one ever, I’d say.” His companion, across the canteen table, wore a gray suit, seen better days. “That’s what got me made up to sergeant, didn’t it?” The detective sergeant sat sideways on his chair, as if a little bit a rebel. He talked out of one side of his mouth, making a tent that kept expanding then collapsing in folds of flesh.
“No way, Jose!” They all looked up to see their inspector, coat neatly folded over left arm, trilby, or whatever it was, balanced on top of the coat, like an eagle come half way down the mountain.
Who wears a trilby, or whatever it is, these days? They thought this but did not say it for he was the boss.
During his daily briefings they counted how many clichés the inspector put out, betting whether he would make a full sentence without one.
The odds were against it.
“We’re on stage” he said, extending the run, “last man or ‘woe-man’ to get back on the job buys the next round.”
Only there would not be a next round for the inspector. Sixteen and a half minutes after they scrambled, truncheons, hats and radios somehow marching alongside their respective owners, the inspector lay in a warm pool of his own rich blood.
Somewhere, probably Bexley or Crayford, or some such place, an elderly mother and even older father would be woken in the night and allowed to cry pitifully for their only child who had gone, against their advice, to be a policeman.
“And a damn fine policeman he was” said the chief superintendent. This was the boss of the boss of the boss. He gave the speech at the funeral, reading from notecards, stopping frequently to blow his large veined nose and wipe tears from his large veined face.
And the mother leant on the father who leant on the mother, while the inspector looked down from afar, from very far, and watched them with puzzled eyes.
He did not understand why they cried and shook with sadness. He did not understand why they talked of him and only him, nor why his parents were holed by grief and looked like they would never smile again. He wanted to go down and comfort them, to tell them it was all right.
“Don’t cry mother, don’t cry father” he called but his words danced away on a sudden wind.
“Don’t be sad, team”, he shouted louder, trying to penetrate the damp clouds. “We got the villains and I got my promotion as well. It has been the best summer ever.”
The aeroplane was different; wide-bodied but with seats just around the side and darkness where the cockpit should have been.
There were no seat assignments, no one to show us to our places, so I sat next to my friend Engle Lander. From behind Francoise tapped me on the shoulder.
“I don’t like this, Scott” she said in the perfect English that was stock for our trade. “The cockpit is so dark.”
“Are you afraid of the dark?” I asked.
“Not normally” she replied truthfully. And I knew it to be the truth even though, in the seat ahead of her, I could not see her eyes.
We were journalists who scribbled for a living. As the fat plane taxied on its tiny wheels, we scribbled in our minds, ignoring the safety briefing that came by video link.
Francoise tapped again; her whispered voice now two whole tones higher.
“There are no people, no cabin staff.”
“That is strange”, I admitted, not wanting to.
I looked forward at the dark. It seemed like the opening of a cavern without the remotest borrowed light.
And we were heading straight for it.
Then, the very moment the plane left the ground behind, there was a transformation. The deep black veil lifted to a flood of light. We blinked like prisoners from solitary.
And with the light was a voice, deep, alluring and warming, like sunshine on our backs.
“Welcome travellers” the voice said “This is your captain and it is my pleasure to fly you to a new world today. We are flying at seventy thousand feet, higher than any plane has gone before. Sit back and enjoy yourselves. You may switch on your computers now.”
One hundred and ninety-four laptops gave their glow to the cabin, but it was as nothing to the glory from the front of the aircraft. We were going to a new place, a place we had not been to before. The cave, once so black, was now full of flash and burn, like magic in the making.
When we leveled off, the captain came back, just as they used to on long haul flights, before terrorists and shoe bombers had their day.
“See, I control the plane from my phone” the captain said proudly, flicking between apps with the surest of touches.
Then he served us dinner from his phone. Three quick clicks and a central rail started buzzing, bringing us dishes and wine on tiny train carriages, reminding me of my childhood.
“See, it is my new invention. It takes away the need for people in my plane.” And it was his plane. That much we knew.
Afterwards, while we tapped our scribbled thoughts, he added, “We’re going to a good place, you know. It will be good where we are going.” He seemed to want to reassure us.
We responded by tapping some more. Could the captain tell whether they were taps of reassurance or clicks of anxiety as our fingers found our keyboards and wore themselves out?
“Are you all comfortable?” our host, our driver, our captain asked.
“Actually, I am a little hot” said Engle Lander, voicing the opinion of us all, at least I imagine so for I was hot with the sun right there in the cockpit forty feet ahead.
“Okay” he said, “I’ll sort that out.”
The light glinted on the axe as he raised it high. I blinked, first due to the glare, then in astonishment. But others were faster than me. Russ moved his huge bulk and stayed the axe before the second blow.
The first time the window had rocked in its joints, the inner skin of fake glass had cracked, revealing its true identity as plastic. The second blow would, without doubt, have broken through and caused the nothingness outside to rush in.
Then I moved, saw Gerry Many out of the corner of my eye. Without needing to discuss our plans, we worked together, restraining the captain and guiding him to a spare seat, the one hundredth and ninety-fifth on that fat plane. As we sat him down, Oz took the axe and found a safe place for it.
Indie sat next to the captain, just as I sat next to Engle Lander. She comforted and soothed the grey-white man who wept with sorrow.
But what, we scribbled and tapped, did he weep for?
The apartment keys clattered on the realtor’s fake mahogany desk, reflecting back to double the number.
I drove west from NYC, away from the rising sun but caught in its brilliant April rays. As the suburbs moved behind I turned off the interstate, determined to experience every moment.
There was a hitchhiker in the first nameless town. He was thin with streaked gray hair and three days growth. He told me, clambering into the front seat of my Chevy, that he had just been released from prison. He wanted to get to Abilene, Texas.
So I turned south for Abilene. It took a week of changing scenes. We did not rush and did not consult a map, just our friend the sun for a guide.
His guitar had two strings missing, but it did not stop him playing the blues as the car slunk along the highway. I sang with him and we filled the car with our sounds.
At Abilene I traded my Chevy for an old MG in shiny green. The engine purred, then roared, then purred again. I fell in love for the first time.
The salesman had a smile as slick as his greasy hair. He had two missing front teeth. I think that is how the lies got through.
The salesman also had a cousin and she needed to get to Kansas. He suggested she ride with me “as I was probably heading that way”.
The cousin had a daughter called Freda, but everyone called her Freckles for she had far more than her share, blending and invading each other.
The MG broke down outside Wichita. I used my remaining money to buy a big truck with red flames down the side.
Freckles rode in the back seat with her feet out one window and her hands out the other.
We stayed in lonely motels and watched the sun play light and shade and other games near and far.
I fell in love for the second and third time.
We never left Kansas.
The wind whipped like my conscience; the former external, the latter inside but hustling to get out and join the wind.
Such thoughts came to me through a mind darker than the raging black sky that, for now, ruled the world. That sky invited me into the darker-still bog. It promised a different kind of black: still and peaceful.
I lowered my body into the swamp until just my hands were on the bank. They were the last link with firm ground; my mind was already in the mire.
But the swamp would not take me away, not fully and entirely. There was no sucking current, no last minute lurch of fear as I realised what I had done to myself, how I had lost control and was now just another part of nature running its course. Instead of black oblivion, my treacherous feet found solid ground.
I was defeated in my last effort on earth.
Very slowly, very pitifully and with some weariness I moved my hands. First the left took hold of a tuft of grass, making paper cuts on my fingers. The pain broke into my mind, slicing it like my wafer-thin skin. Then the right found a rock, protruding like a statement of intent or a rusting road sign on a once travelled highway.
I hauled myself out and sat on the edge, shivering from my failure.
Then I took a lungful of sweet marsh air while a frog, perched on the bank, looked on my antics with disdain.