There he is, shuffling around in circles, tucked up warm inside that long, padded coat. He followed me back here two hours ago, back to my house, as he does several nights per month. I always pretend to not notice. I pretend I don’t see him, but I do. I pretend he doesn’t scare me, but he does.
A quick flick of the curtains and I can see he is getting ready to leave. I look over to where my mobile phone lay on the coffee table. 22:51. I looked back to the shambling figure outside. He always walks in circles and pats his grimy beany hat before he leaves.
He patted his hat.
I grabbed my red bag – the bag I had prepared, leaving my usual blue bag on the settee. I put on the green coat that I had bought two weeks ago, deliberately shunning my black coat. In fact, everything I was wearing, including the hat covering my hair, had been bought in the last month, in several different charity shops. I had been careful to not visit any charity shops I had worked in previously, before Jim and I went our separate ways.
The stranger walked away. I couldn’t keep calling him “the stranger”, so I called him “Jim”. It was as good name as any. Besides, he looked like a Jim.
Quietly, I pulled the door shut as I left, hearing the local click home securely. I loved that sound. My footsteps were silent in the cheap trainers as I followed the path Jim had taken. The wind seemed to blow through the thin trousers, but I knew this would not take long, and then I would be home and safe again.
No one was going to interrupt us. He led me out, from my street at the edge of the town to the dilapidated buildings from where a petrol station once operated. The sign had been painted over several times by different businesses that each had hoped to turn around the building’s fortunes, but had all failed, miserably and quickly, leaving the stone shell fit only for failed lives to fill.
I’d known many of them; Sammie, Dave B, Dave C and Dave H. Dave was a common name on the homelessness scene, as well as Nick and Gary. Gary P, Gary T and Gary H. I knew them all. I knew them all, I’d worked with them all and I knew their stories. I’d given them the best part of my life.
No one was there for me.
I’d gone to the badminton club, to the local arts group, I even went to the Women’s Institute, and I gave up. No one noticed. No one cared. I used to go back home each night and closed the curtains, terrified. I’d spent the best years of my life terrified – or what I had thought were the best years of my life.
He used to leave his mobile phone at his flat, so he could deny he was anywhere near me. He used to wear old trainers so I’d never hear him coming. He was always careful in everything he did. The police could not touch him, not until they had evidence. They were nice, the officers were nice. They just needed evidence. They got evidence when I was admitted to the burns unit. I didn’t even have to testify.
I thought of all this as I followed Jim, and I did not feel any hint of guilt or trepidation for what was to come.
I stopped behind the low wall that separated the old petrol station from the road. I watched Jim go into the hollow building, to his bed for the night. I didn’t know if he was alone or if others were sleeping there. I couldn’t call it “living there”. They weren’t living, they were existing, and I know the difference well enough.
I stayed hidden behind the wall.
I unzipped the red bag, which was aptly coloured. I took out the pop bottle I had filled with petrol and I unscrewed the lid. Slowly, carefully, I stepped forward, step by step, until I was at the doorway of the petrol station. I poured out the bottle, my eyes taking in the raft of litter that covered most of the floor. I had counted on this – the mess that animals live in. I flicked some of the petrol from the pop bottle into the building, spattering the litter with the strong-smelling liquid. Some of it had leaked onto my gloves. I peeled them off the bumpy, ridged skin and threw them down onto the ground. The box of matches was a little difficult for my webbed fingers to open, and even more challenging was the task of taking out a match and striking it. But I did it, and threw the lit match into the doorway.
Lit match after lit match fell through the doorway, the doorframe like a window into a world of fire, heat and anger.
Walking away, I felt just as numb as though I had watched an explosive television drama.
Life was nothing but drama.
But now it was all over and I could return home.
Once my front door lock had clicked shut, I closed my curtains, switched off the television and picked up my mobile phone to text a friend I had met last week. There is a salsa class at the church hall and I want to go with a friend. It was time for me to get a life.
Another one of my “dark” writing group stories. It’s not yet complete but it’s getting there.