That first day, he’s still half asleep. It’s raining, and he plods from lamppost to lamppost – nicotine light and dirty grey pavements – as fast as his banjaxed knee will allow him. It’s never been right since a dirty tackle destroyed his chances of playing for Portsmouth, all those years ago. ‘Cruciate ligament,’ they said, and there’d been surgery, but he’d never been able to trust it properly since.
Which was why –
No. No excuses. Okay?
He despised people who tried to excuse the inexcusable. He’d been a fucking idiot, ‘a dinlo’, just like the lads at work had said. Which was preferable to what his supervisor had to say, ‘You’re bloody lucky to still have a job. If it wasn’t for your record –’ His face had been hard. ‘Just don’t be late, that’s all. Don’t give me an excuse.’
Which is why he’s up at sparrow-fart, marching along London road, resenting the cars which whoosh past him in a spray of water and fumes.
He could take the bus, but somehow that would be too easy.
What was it Ellen had called it the morning after, while struggling back into the clothes she’d worn when she’d exploded into his regular the night before, all creamy cleavage and bottom hugging skirt?
‘No time to get home and change before work,’ she’d said, that heavy perfume clinging despite everything they’d done. ‘It’s the “Walk of Shame” for me.
‘Worth it though,’ she’d added. She’d stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and he – lost somewhat, without the fluency of alcohol to guide him – had patted her shoulder, then stood back to watch her leave, thinking, that’ll be that.
He trudges past a bag of rubbish, which has been split open by a fox, and kicks a stray can into the road. A car swerves to avoid it, and he mouths, ‘Sorry.’
Although he’s not exactly sure what for.
Everything, he supposes.
He’s taken to walking the back streets, although still avoiding Wykeham Road where his Golf is parked. He’ll have to do something about that at some point. Not good for it to sit too long without movement.
He turns on each corner, just like he used to in the car, although at this pace he notices more.
The rubbish outside that house has been there for days, and it’s beginning to annoy him. If those carpet offcuts are still there next week, he’s gonna do something about it. Not knock and say something, the way Ellen would’ve, but just carry them away, one at a time, on his way home.
They look skanky, all rain drenched and mouldy, but he’ll swipe a set of gloves from work, and, well, somehow he’ll get them out to the tip, even without a car.
Truth be told, this road would look a deal better without them.
He’s getting fitter, his knee less inclined to object, the three mile round trip no longer so tiring, even after days of the sort of work his supervisor is throwing at him. He’s changed three clutches already this week. And no one else in the garage ever has to change the oil or filters when he’s around.
‘Quite a bonus for us, mush.’ One of them had clapped him on the back.
He didn’t mind what he did, so long as he kept busy. Wasn’t going to complain about getting dirty, or that all the more interesting diagnostic work was going elsewhere.
It was enough that the other lads had stopped complaining about having to drive his cars onto the lifters for him, had started doing it as automatically as they plugged their tools in to recharge at night.
He’s beginning to get choosy about which streets he walks. He prefers those where the houses don’t push straight out onto the street, where there’s a bit of a forecourt – like his, he supposes – and where the pavement’s a bit deeper, and there’s more to look at. Trees and stuff.
A neglected forecourt, full of weeds poking between tiles, reminds him of that second night, second morning.
She’d walked back into his regular on the following Friday, carrying her pool cue in that bright red case, and his mates had shoved him forwards, even though he was only on his second beer.
‘Think you can beat me this time?’ he’d said, making the best of the job.
She’d lifted her cue at him, a kind of half salute, and her eyes had gleamed. ‘Only one way to find out.’
They’d played all night, and the drink had made him bold. Made him as bold as her in the end. And the following morning he’d expected her to head off promptly, like the last time. But she’d lingered to make toast. And she’d spotted a spider in the sink, and cupped her hand to carry it outside, turning the key to his back garden before he could stop her.
She’d stood there, barefoot, watching the field of grasses wave their seed-heavy heads.
‘Hasn’t been time to cut it,’ he’d mumbled, but it didn’t look like she’d heard him. ‘Anyway, I’ve got a builder mate who’s going to – ’
‘You’ve even got nettles!’
And she’d grabbed him and yanked him down to her height for a wide-mouthed kiss. His hand had touched her side: sturdy, warm.
‘You care, don’t you?’ she’d said, when she let him go.
About you? He swallowed, rolled words around in his mouth, panicked.
But she was already distracted, parting the long grass to show him a tiny sapling.
‘Wild seeded,’ she’d said. ‘There’s more to you than meets the eye.’
And he’d wished it was true. Even though he hadn’t the faintest what she was blathering on about.
Even though there’s ice on its leaves, the birds are back in the holly tree. He pauses to listen.
It’s January now, and cold; the promise of Christmas long gone. At least the lads have stopped calling him ‘Santa’, for the bags of rubbish they’d spotted him carrying over his shoulder.
The streets are clearer though. And yet, emptier.
And he’s drawn more and more to the individual displays of green in the forecourts, the ingenuity of the people behind the lace curtains who’ve nurtured these little strips of life.
He’s started bringing his mechanic’s mind to it, noticing how they’ve raised beds for those herbs, spotting where they’ve taken up tiles, where they’ve struck down to the earth to plant hedges, and even trees.
Pretty stunning what’s possible, when you really start to think.
When he gets home, he walks into the back garden, looks round at the stone marble seat, at the rivers of round stones, curling through the wide flat concrete.
He’d thought she’d like it. Hadn’t waited for the morning to show her, had led her out there, clicking his fingers to bring on the lights and circling hands round her waist. Easy with her, in the post-pub, beer-warmed evening.
‘D’ya like it?’
He bumps into her on the street. She puts out a hand to stop him, exclaiming, ‘I hardly recognise you. You look so – tall!’
But he’s always been tall.
‘Have you grown, or what?’
‘Just been walking a lot,’ he mumbles.
‘Well, you’re looking good on it. Obviously suits you.’ She looks awkward. ‘The lads told me what happened. And I’m… sorry, like.’
He clenches his hands in his pocket. He’s not been in his regular since they’d argued. Just – couldn’t.
He recalls her storming down the street.
‘I’m just a string of one night stands to you,’ she’d said.
‘No. You’re not,’ he’d said into the air. But she was gone. And anyway, the other words she’d said had rankled. Calling him stuck, saying his garden was dead. Saying he was less than she’d thought.
He’d gone back inside, closed the door. But then the fear had struck.
Would she be okay, walking home that late?
He’d been out the door, down first one street then the next, intent on catching her.
But there was no chance, not the way she’d been walking, not with his gammy knee.
It was ironic really, given the amounts of times he’d trawled those streets, unable to remember where he’d parked his car the previous day, that he bumped into his Golf just sitting there. The car keys jangled in his pocket. He thought of Ellen’s tendency to stop at the green bit in St Mary’s church and sit under a tree.
And he couldn’t risk the chance of anyone hurting her.
‘How long’s the ban?’ she asks.
‘Not long now, then?’
He shrugs. ‘I sold the car. Kinda got used to the walk.’
The tee-shirt she’s wearing has the planet earth built out of animals: polar bear ice caps, turtle seas.
‘Wanna come for a walk?’ he says.
‘My street. There’s… There’s something I want to show you.’
A forecourt, bursting with life. And in the centre, a sapling.
He’d never had the heart to kill it. If she’d waited, that evening, he’d have shown her it, safely rescued into a pot. But now its roots are deep in earth, and it’s stretching up in the summer air, taller every day.
‘I’m working with the neighbours, now,’ he’d tell her. ‘A couple of them asked me if I could help them plant up their forecourts, too. And there’s these mats you can buy, to hang down the outer walls of your house, and grow stuff up. That’s what I’m gonna do next.’
And in the garden, there are seed-heavy grasses and wild flowers, nodding their heads, insects buzzing.
He’s hoping his builder mate never finds out.
‘Wanna come?’ he says.
Inspiration: I was inspired by a TEDX talk by the wonderful Megan Streb on the power of liveable cities, exploring how we can be more connected to ourselves, our community, and our environment. She suggested several ways that people could effect change and reclaim their streets. I was struck by one of her simplest suggestions, just start walking (or cycling) more. I found myself pondering what changes might result if someone did what she suggested.
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.
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