1. Gannon

    Gannon Contributor Contributor

    Jan 15, 2007
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    Manchester, England

    Winner Solar Short Story Contest 96: The Ghost That Never Was

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Gannon, Jul 18, 2011.

    Solar - Call it a Day

    It was a fine afternoon as the old man shuffled along the pavement. The sun hovered on the verge of plunging into pinks and oranges; you know, when the light deepens the late afternoon and casts a veil through which lawns appear draped in gold.

    He moved at a sciatica-wary pace, his weight on the hard curve of a walking stick kept him steady. He looked muddled, sniffing the air, wearing a frown as if he had lost his way. But he knew the area like a cabbie knows the knowledge, Christ, he’d lived there nearly fifty years, he ought to know.

    And he knew exactly where he was going too, it’s Friday for godsake, how could he not know the one day of leave from his pokey flat. A flat he worked his life in a factory to pay for. Though, back then, it was a sensible move. There’s no point paying rent all your life with nothing to show at the end. At least with a mortgage you get to own your home. And not only did it give him the satisfaction of being a homeowner, it gave him a sense of independence and proper-ness, a sense of becoming a real person and stepping onto the great stage of life.

    And back in those days, ten steps was easy; but he hadn’t the foresight to envision the day when a small set of stairs would morph into his enemy. The younger him couldn’t imagine a time when he’d be recovering from a hip operation, riddled with arthritis, suffering from incontinence and itchy varicose veins. Buying the flat had started out as a means to liberate himself from a tyranny of landlords; but now he’s an old man, it serves as a penultimate coffin, a dress rehearsal done in the spirit of procrastination or a dry run for those on the twilit verge but not quite ready to take the plunge. He braved the cement stairs once a week, despite knowing his fragility was such that one fall would probably shatter everything. The risk wasn’t a bother; either that or give up and be a vegetable.

    He would get to the bookmakers in time for the last day-races (cos anyone who’s anyone knows that’s when the mickey mouse runners pop up at large odds) and in time for the first few dog sprints of the night. The journey was painful and usually left him aching for days, but he drank the adrenaline charged atmosphere as though it was something temporary for the pain, so he could at least enjoy a small window of leisure.

    The bloke on the till – built like a brick outhouse, with pierced eyebrows and a tattoo of an electric guitar on his arm – always greeted the old man amiably.

    ‘How are yer me ol son? Feelin lucky?’ he’d say as the old man made his investment – usually a twelve bet combination exacta at twenty pence. He liked the management too; they were kind to the lost souls who clutched square slips and pored over race-cards.
    And if that was the icing, then tea and coffee on-the-house was the cherry. Oh, and there was Pete the ex-docker with raspy lungs. ‘S’my asbestos,’ he’d say after hacking phlegm on a tissue.

    He didn’t mind Pete, even though his tips were lousy and his trackside wisdom somewhat questionable. The old man could tolerate ignorance for the sake of some good honest banter.

    He liked the drama of each race be it flat, chase or hurdle; the commentator; the epic names; the excited punters, ‘Git up there, gorn; git in there my son; gorn na, gorn na,’ as if trying to gee-on geldings via telepathic communication; and more often than not, the mockney cheers fizzled out. Followed by a flurry of crumpled betting slips that swamp the floor in front of the bins. The old man loved it all and wouldn’t give up his bookie time for anything in the world.

    But today he felt odd.
    A sudden urge came over him as he made his way to the high street along the main road. He wanted to see the house him and Gill would’ve lived in after they married; so, without much forethought, he turned left at Oakham Avenue, a typical English road lined with semi-detached houses and neat front gardens.

    He wandered along at a snail’s pace, expecting to catch a glimpse of his dream home. But it wasn’t there, in fact, he’d forgotten where he was going, what street number, what it looked like even. He trembled and doubted his own faculties, couldn’t say for certain if this was the right road, so he stopped for a while.

    Across the street, a woman appeared from a house, a lovely place with trendy red bricks and a plush side extension. Perhaps not the exact house, but very similar. When she turned, his heart jumped furiously, his knees wanted to buckle but he kept a firm hold of the walking stick. He swore it was Gill, or a spectre at the very least; because Gill was a pretty redhead, with a foxy figure and full lips, just like the woman over there.

    He drifted into a reverie, he was back at the moment he met her for the first time; and then remembered being on one knee at a restaurant, eloquently declaring his love and popped the question like a vintage wine cork, and the way she fizzed like champagne.
    ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Of course I will!’

    And their perfect church wedding where she was quite possibly the finest looking woman on earth, and he was the strapping, handsome, successful man, strong and nourishing; and how they made love sweetly for the first time; and on their second night honeymooning they drank cocktails in a smoky bar where Nina Simone just happened to be scheduled; they danced to Wild is the Wind, a song to be their soulful melody for all time; her rose perfume drove him wild, her clear blue eyes sparkled as if they were wellsprings running to the heart, and they slowly moved in for the kiss.

    ‘What ya gawping at old man?’
    The woman across the road had caught him staring longingly. He fell back to earth in an arthritic pile and looked to the floor, ashamed by his momentary lapse. He wanted to say ‘I were just daydreaming, madam’, but he didn’t believe in his own voice and hadn’t the courage to speak up.

    He would’ve walked away, back towards town, and would’ve tried to put the old ghosts to rest. But he caught a whiff on the air, an industrial tang, heavy and thick, with a consoling weight that felt like anchorage, something to root him in the ground. He carried on Oakham Avenue, sniffing the air as he went along.

    The north end of Oakham Avenue joined Walnut Road. The pavement was bigger and shaded by trees. A section of the road had just been resurfaced, the tarmac still warm on the air. Workmen, in high visibility overalls, were packing up for the day, loading tools onto the back of a yellow flatbed lorry.

    Of course, it was different in the old man’s day; they didn’t have sophisticated auto-pumps and electronic boiler-tanks to heat the tar. Having said that, he did recognise some of the equipment. The long black rod connected to grey piping looked pretty similar to the old tar lances.

    He drifted into another reverie. This time he was a young man. Eighteen years old and keen to help rebuild his country after the devastation of war.
    He secured a job resurfacing roads with a small crew. The gaffa, a fierce Irishman, went by the name Douglas McAdams. But most people knew him as ‘Dog’ or ‘Bulldog’. He had that look about him: big tough head, body like a stone bollard and shovel like hands with huge red knuckles. Just after the Great War his uncle died of flu, and Dog inherited a horse drawn wagon, coal-fired tar boiler, bucket, barrow and rake. Ever since then, he’d been up and down the country surfacing and resurfacing roads. During the Second World War he earned a reputation for getting the job done quickly and effectively, and he’d boast about how he fought the Germans with his tar lance. Though, he clung to the old ways like a man may cling to his hat in stormy weather. While modernists waved their wands and flashed their shiny new inventions, he was proud to be one of the last crews to rely on horse and coal power.

    The pay was decent, but the work was long and arduous. By the second week, the young man had the laborious task of spreading tarred chips of limestone with an iron rake, as the barrowman poured the hot dressing and the bucketman filled the gaps. The awkward stretch, the coal-fire, the smouldering coke, the molten tar all made the job painful and stifling. Even with sweaty gauntlets his fingers blistered.

    At least I can lunch in the open air, the young man thought. He finished his ham roll and allowed himself to admire the quaint village, a few Georgian houses, some oak trees, a common, a butcher’s and a baker’s.

    Then his heart jumped and his hands quivered. They’re here again. Two lasses, one with a basket of apples, the other with blackberries; and again they stand by the bench at the front of the common, and with curious eyes watch the grimy workmen. He’d been thinking about the pretty red haired girl all morning, and now his legs wobbled, his throat tightened at the sight of her. She waved and smiled; he responded with a cautious nod and looked to the ground.

    ‘Aren’tcha gonna chirps her then? Tree days running she gives yer the wink and tree times yer snub the poor lass,’ Dog remarked.
    ‘I’ll do it tomora.’
    ‘Ah t’mora t’mora, yer said that yesterday.’
    ‘I will, you’ll see – tomora is the day.'
    ‘Son, no use living for t’mora, yer gotta take yer chances when they fresh and hot, like that tar dressing over there.’

    The young man hadn’t the courage to admit he was a coward and that taking chances was the thing he dreaded most. Later that night he lay awake thinking about the pretty red haired girl. He imagined what it’d be like to kiss her full red lips. He felt certain that love had truly struck his heart, and berated himself for being such a wimp. He made a personal vow that tomorrow really would be the day; no more dithering, no more cowardice, no more spineless wobbling.

    The next morning he whistled a merry tune as he rode to work. Today I am Prince Charming, he told himself. At lunchtime he ate his sandwich and disguised the jitters with a cool, calm mien. But the girls didn’t show up. No panic. They’d turn up eventually, and Dog would wink and say ‘Gorn son, get in there,’ and he would swagger over like a confident prince to sweep her away with his irresistible charm.

    However, the hours went by and come five o’clock there was still no sign of her. The young man asked Dog if they had any more roads to do in this area.

    ‘Nah son. Next week we’ll be other side of the river.’
    ‘S’matter kid?’
    ‘It don’t matter.’
    ‘S’that gal aint it?
    ‘Yeh, was gonna chirps her today. But she didn’t -’
    ‘Yeh, just m’luck.’
    ‘Toldya kid, chances are like carrots, get em when they’re fresh, else they’ll spoil.’

    He couldn’t help staring at the grizzly scar on Dog’s forearm. Glistening with sweat, it served as a warning: Tar is dangerously hot, and the wind’s your enemy.

    The old man examined his fingers; the tips brown from years of pipe smoke and teabag squeezing. He looked for the ring, the one token of marriage that could put his mind at rest.

    No ring there, no mark nor trace of a gold band whatsoever.
    He couldn’t stop the overflow of tears. I’m old and foolish, he said to himself. Foolish for not taking Dog’s advice all em years ago; foolish for squandering opportunities; foolish for thinking that Gill is anything more than a hopeless dream. But a fork still touched his heart. The sobs grew wetter and louder.

    ‘You ok mate?’ A workman spotted the small elderly gentleman crying on the pavement. The old man wanted to reply ‘No! I’m not ok. I spent the best part of my years living for a fantasy future that could never be, and now I’ll spend the rest of my time longing for a past that never was.’
    But he hadn’t the courage. He nodded and signalled in a manner that suggested he was fine. He wiped his nose with a cotton hankie and found he’d lost all appetite for betting.

    He turned in the direction of the cement steps, and in doing so, resembled an autumn leaf clinging to a twig, knowing full well that one more gust would sweep him away.
  2. Blue_Lotus

    Blue_Lotus New Member

    Jun 16, 2011
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    Whoot congrats Solar!
  3. nzric

    nzric Active Member

    Jun 13, 2010
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    New Zealand
    great story, congratulations!
  4. james crofoot

    james crofoot New Member

    Aug 24, 2011
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    michigan, usa
    Sad storie. Young men should read this one, so they don't let their dreams die for want of trying.

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