Years are just like fence posts from train carriage windows. No more significant, and no less. Count them off as you go and, after a bit, you lose track.
The town stunk of hops and yeast as I remember it. Every Wednesday and Friday – brewing day. Already I sound old, like some old man chuntering away, propping up the bar with a pint of mild and a bag of McCoys. But I’m not talking about some ancient relic of a time ago. I’m talking ten or twelve years, fifteen at a push. I’m talking about walks to school through clouds of the stuff, hanging and stinking in the spring air. Invisible, but visceral all the same.
That’s gone now. In a town that centuries forgot, time has caught up. Time is here and it’s moving fast.
“You remember this place then,” he says, a sideways smile giving away a little more than he means to. He’s got a button-down denim shirt on and he reckons he knows something about me.
“I remember you, is that not enough?”
“Been a while, though, an’t it.”
“Two years. No time.”
“No time at all,” he says, and the sun looks down at us from somewhere behind the thick grey murk above our heads.
Come back home and be a drunk. Come back home and wear the barstool down in the same spot every night, talking the talk with the punters who roll in to the Duke of Wellington. Different nights bring different faces until a pattern forms; the nights pair up with faces, same nights/same faces over and over. After a while you know it and it’s all you know, and some people exist just for you to say ey up, not your night tonight is it, missus let you out?, and then he’ll say for good behaviour and both of you will laugh and that will be that. Come home and do that. Come home and do that over and over.
“I’ve got summat to show you,” he says as we trudge up Kinburn Hill past the brewery carcass, past the little boxes all spruced-up nice and clean and full of bright white smiling children, full of families with parents just a little younger than me.
He stops. There’s a car parked here – a little red Fiat Panda which looks like it has seen better days.
“Didn’t even know you could drive.”
He lights a Mayfair and offers the packet to me. I tell I’m alright.
“No time, two years.”
“Come and have a look at this then.”
He walks around to the back of the Fiat. The key sticks – fucking thing, he says, slurring from the cigarette wedged in his lips, smoke in his eyes – then the boot pops open and I can see nothing.
“Shut up.” He leans in, peeling back the pair dust mats that he’s laid down in the back, just a little, so I can see what’s underneath. An air rifle – barrel florid with rust, wooden butt course and ugly.
“Nice. You could batter someone to death with that.”
“Shut up,” he repeats, laughing. “Get in.”
Come home and moan about the weather. That terrible weather that you do anything to leave but that you’d do anything to be back underneath once you’ve gone. Your impotent teenage years are spent dreaming of an escape. You pray and pray for an inch then you open your eyes one day and they’ve given you a mile, and you take that mile and you look back and you see no one. Then you think about it through dark exile, how much you’d give to be back standing in your parents’ back garden on those frigid February nights when everything is stuck fast and inert. How much you’d give to look up into that sky and dare it to snow, dare it to squall up and blizzard and cut the power and lash and howl for a whole night. Dare it to do its worst.
Cowslip Woods was the place to go for lighting fires and smoking and drinking and mischief. Woodsmoke, cigarette smoke, dark heavy earth, dark rum, fetid mulch of organic matter churning around and around, smell of diesel from the motorway, thick chemical smell from the hairspray canister stoking the flames; sensory building blocks, fundamentals, never forgotten. Names and visions, and all that other stuff, chuck it on the heap and burn it up. But that atmosphere, that heady mix of youth and recklessness, it stays with you.
We are up here again on a Tuesday afternoon. He’s got his rifle levelled against his shoulder and for some reason there is a target already pinned to a tree twenty yards ahead of us.
“You had this all planned out, I see.”
“Summat special for your homecoming.”
He’s smoking another Mayfair. In his rucksack he’s got cans but I can’t see what they are.
“What you brought?”
He lets a shot go. It’s just an air rifle, but there’s a wicked snapcrack of a noise that comes sailing out with it and I jump. Yeah, to my shame I jump. Fucking hell. He laughs and calls me a fanny and I see that clean-through pockmark in the yellow ring around the red bull’s eye.
“You’re pretty good at this.”
“I’m alright. Have a go yourself.”
There’s the whip, then there’s the whistling rush of air across a pellet travelling uselessly away into the woods. But there’s no crack. I hit nothing. The thing kicked back at me and the barrel jumped up like a mule and I hit nothing.
He hands me a can.
“Ok then, I give in.”
“Not so easy is it?”
“Not at all.”
I sip the warm lager. It’s as horrible as expected, worse actually.
“Reckon you could kill someone with these?”
“Worth a try, eh,” he says.
I laugh a thin laugh which has no echo. I turn my body so that I’m facing him, my arms outstretched, can in my left hand. “Gu’on then,” I say.
He lowers the rifle. He’s looking at me. Now his eyes aren’t saying anything because I know he doesn’t have the slightest idea what is going on.
“I said… gu’on then.”
Years ago the photograph on the wall of the Duke of Wellington, in the side room above the fireplace used to give me the creeps; high up there, stapled into the chintz wallpaper above the fire irons, horseshoes and all manner of other pub ephemera. It was of three young girls, dressed in little white pinafore dresses, taken in about 1900 I guess, maybe a bit before. They were stood leaning on the wall outside the Duke; the same wall I’d leaned on, smoking and talking shit after a big Wednesday night or a big Thursday night. Now the years rattle by and that picture doesn’t seem so scary at all. A hundred years, two years; what’s the difference? Years are just like fence posts from train carriage windows. No more significant, and no less. Count them off as you go and, after a bit, you lose track.
John Burns is a writer and teacher from Nottingham in the UK, but currently based somewhat far from there. Pieces of his non-fiction can be found at PopMatters, Empty Mirror, and 10BooksFor..., among other places.