The jagged edges of the corrugated roof snagged a plastic bag that had blown against the bus shelter. It flapped like an enraged bird. George knew what it meant to be enraged. He gripped the tiny box in his pocket with clenched fingers.
The pane that backed the shelter had shattered, scattering shards that scrunched underfoot as he paced. The local Council had wedged a plastered panel where the glass had once been and someone had sprayed Loooser in blurred letters across it. They didn’t even know how to spell. The dustbin lay on the ground, half crushed, its contents splayed across the pavement. He pushed a syringe out of sight with the toe of his boot, twisting the needle as he did.
He wiped bird muck from the bench with a handkerchief then tossed the filthy tissue on the bin. Spreading a discarded copy of the Guardian over the mess, he sat down and rested his head in his hands. “Don’t,” he imagined his wife saying. “You’ll regret it.”
He drew the small box from his pocket, his fingers trembling as the clasp resisted his efforts to open it. The pill was bright red and so tiny for a substance that people made so much fuss about. “Please,” she whispered, a sob in her voice. “Think of the children.”
“Whenever did they think of me?” The wind blustered by way of reply. Enough. He grasped the pill between shaky fingers and brought it to his lips only to have it slip from his grip and roll under the waste bin. Down on hands and knees, he shoved the bin aside, but the pill was nowhere to be seen. Then he spotted it, a glint of red caught in a crack in the pavement close to a dark brown muck.
His hand flew to his nose to ward off the stench and he shuffled away crab-like, sinking to the ground with his back pressed against the bench. Splinters of glass dug into his backside, but he paid them no heed. She would be smiling, he was sure, but not out of malice, more from satisfaction. Why did she always get her way? Even now she was dead.
A dog nosing his trouser leg had him look up. It sniffed the brown pile, then its tongue quested in the crack between the paving stones. The man launched forward, pushing the animal out of the way and cutting his hands and knees as he did. It was then he caught sight of the red dot on the tip of its tongue before it disappeared into its mouth.
“No!” he shouted, shaking the dog’s shoulders as if that would make it understand. The cocker sank to the ground and keeled over on its side, it’s swollen tongue flopping out of its mouth.
George knelt by the dog, head bowed, eyes closed, one hand on its flank, sensing each convulsion as if it was a stab in his own flesh. He shuddered. Blasted chemist. “Quick and painless,” he’d said. What pathetic rubbish.
“Hey! You! What are you doing to my dog?”
George turned to see a stocky man dressed in charity-shop clothes looming over him. There was no way he could explain. Forgotten for a moment, the dog let out a grunt and its back arched up one last time before it sank in a heap to the ground.
“You bastard,” the man shouted, raining blows on George’s head and shoulders as he spat out insult after insult. George slumped over the dog’s rigid body, sheltering his head from the man’s fists. The man switched to booted feet, kicking ribs and back and legs like an unswerving madman bent on bruising every inch of George’s body.
“Whatever are you going?” George heard a trembling female voice call out. “Stop that immediately.”
“Bloody – nosey – woman,” the man retorted, punctuating each word with a kick. “Piss off or I’ll kick you too.” George cracked open one eye to see the man bearing down on an old woman, hunched in her black lace, a handbag looped over her arm, a silver object clutched in her hand.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” the woman warned, her voice shrill. Another crackpot George thought, till a sharp detonation had the charity-shop man lurch sideways and topple on George. Squashed between man and dog, George struggled to breathe, his lungs choking on the smell of mothballs and beer. Surely the old woman would go for help. But why did she not enquire after him? Had she fled thinking he was dead?
“Be grateful she saved your life,” his wife would have said.
A cold wetness stole over George as the man’s blood pooled on his back. The wind was biting. He could do nothing to stave it off as it plucked at his clothes.
“But at least you’re alive,” he imagined his wife saying. For once her being positive didn’t annoy him. “I’m glad of that,” she said. Her reading his thoughts was another of her irritating traits.
“Fat lot of good it does me. I’m like a bruised chunk of meat sandwiched between two dead bodies.”
“You have such a weird sense off humour. I can’t say I like it.”
As blunt as ever. “Wasn’t that why you …?” He still couldn’t bring himself to say the words.
Night was falling and no one had come. Not even an empty bus or a stray dog. Feeling had long since deserted his fingers and toes. He tried to move them, but a numb absence was all that remained at the far reaches of his aching limbs.
“…of course you can,” she was saying as he drifted out of sleep. “Just hold on.” The world was as dark and as still as death. For all his bumbling, maybe he’d succeeded. But no. A distant throbbing grew till it filled the air with a wreak of oil and fumes and a bright light blinded him.
“You two havin’ fun? Or just lyin’ there passin’ the time o’ day?” a man called out over the pounding of the engine. “If it’s a bus yer wantin’, now’s the time.”
“I can’t move,” he wanted to say, but his mouth and throat were as dry as a bone abandoned in the desert. Not even a squeak could squeeze its way out.
“Right yer are then,” the man shouted. “I’ll be gettin’ along.” There was a creak as the brakes were released, then the engine roared and the bus pulled away, its headlights roaming the wasteland before returning to the road. And darkness and silence came rushing back.
“No! You are not giving up,” she said as he drifted towards oblivion.
“Wasn’t that what you did?”
“I was wrong. I’m not letting you make the same mistake.”
“What’s the point?”
He craved but one thing, release. Release from the pain. Release from the loss of his wife. Release from the unending drudge. Release from the struggle. Release from life. And release came, all of a sudden, panting its way up to him, saying “I knew somethin’ was amiss”, buoying him up, casting off the weight of the dead man, freeing his lungs to breathe again, offering him a hand up and a shoulder to lean on.
“Are you all right mate? Sorry I took so long. Had to park me bus.”