George sat on the bench on the end of the pier, his back to the sea, looking back at the vista of the town as the sun set over it.
The town had changed so much throughout his life, from a thriving seaside oasis in his childhood, a welcome escape from the noise of the city where he had been born. A heaven all of its own. Memories of days spent running from the disaster zone of his mother and father. Running with his brother and sisters to hide between the metal legs of the pier, like a safe apron he could pull on the strings of for protection. Safety his mother had never been able to be, in the face of the rage of Dad. This place had been special then and, even now, with its sense of decay and deprivation, George felt happiness even as he looked across the closed shops and the scattered forms of homeless people on the sea front.
George’s legs were set wide and his meaty paws, with their tattooed digits, rested on his thighs as he started to struggle to breathe and the pain latched around his chest. His first thought was to panic, to fight, but then the pain lifted, like the end of a sudden shower of rain on a summers day. Gone.
It was then that the sallow young man appeared on the bench at his side. George tried not to take umbrage to the fact this youth, with his dark clothes and unlikely colouring, was invading his space when there were at least a half dozen empty benches around them, but it irked him. Little git, he thought. I’ve had enough of these kids on here. He puffed out his breath to signal his annoyance and, in a fit of long redundant muscle memory, cracked his now painless arthritic knuckles into a crunching fist.
George then noticed the tips of the boy’s wings, black and smooth and batlike as they were. While not an educated man, George had always had wit enough to read situations well. It had kept him alive on the streets and seen him well in earning a crust. He put the pieces together: the sudden absence of both sudden and long-borne pain; the appearance, as if by magic; batwings on a person…
“You’re not what I expected,” he huffed.
The youth tilted his face to George: “I hardly ever am, this one woman…” His voice tailed off. “This isn’t about what you expect. Or about me. It is about leaving things behind. Making your exit.”
George chuckled: “I always reckoned it’d be the grim reaper. You know, bony face and scythe.” His meaty hand waved over his face before miming a curved blade in the air. The youth smiled sympathetically. “So this is it?” asked George, the weight of his bovine face dropping into a resigned look of sadness.
“When you leave the body, you leave it all behind. Every single memory, every single story. We’ve time for just three special moments George,” said the youth.
“But it’ll be dark soon,” said George, waving his hand across the view of the town.
“You might not have noticed George, but time is stopped. You’re dying, time isn’t a factor any more. We are out of time.”
George’s face crumpled in thought. “Special moments? Just three?”
“Just three – think them and we will go back now.”
George’s face uncrumpled and smiled.
He was there in his football strip, the day of his eight birthday, surrounded by his juniors team mates. For the first time ever his father was on the sidelines. There on some sort of a promise from his mother. He could see Dad chatting to Tommy Finnegan’s mother. She was brassy and caught the eye. Even to a boy like him she was noticable. Tight clothes in bright colours. A million miles away from the drudgery of his own mother.
Torn back from the momentary distraction, he heard Tommy shout his name and he turned in time to see the cross, heading it neatly into the goal like a dream. His teammates piled on him in smiles and cheers, as the ref blew his whistle for time. Dad roared from the sidelines: “THAT’S MY BOY!” jumping around and grabbing Tommy’s mum in celebration. Right then George was Terence Sway’s boy and he knew it and it felt like his heart would burst. George didn’t ponder what had come next. How two weeks later Dad and Gloria Finnegan would do a bunk. How he and his siblings would be left with Mother and a whole other world of misery. That was just pain and this wasn’t the time for that.
The youth appeared and the memory shifted. George found himself wearing the skin of his twenty four year old self. He looked at his hands, newly tattooed under his wedding band, pulled his fingers into a painless and functioning fist. He was outside The Bell and he felt glee as it all had started to kick off. The fist to the side of his face was well met as George felt the vigour of his youth mixed with the bravado of drink coursing through his veins. Stunned, but by no means distracted, he span back to the source of the sucker punch, pulsing with pure rage and lamped the bloke straight to the nose, which burst with blood across his face as he fell to the ground. George swung his foot into the man’s side, kicking his ribcage up into a curve, before stamping on the man’s face with his boots. George span round, his own eye cut and bleeding from the earlier blow, dripping down the whiteness of his best shirt. His fists were clenched as he expanded his chest, his face screwed as he roared: “WHO FUCKING WANTS SOME THEN?”
Violent happiness, perhaps the biggest rush of his life. He caught the figure of the youth in the corner of his eye and the world shifted again.
He was sitting in a chair, in his home, the home he’d had with Maggie, before he had spoiled it all. It was dark but he would recognise that place, that moment, even with his eyes closed. The warm weight on his chest, the tiny curve of his sleeping infant son, just settled after what seemed like hours of crying. George couldn’t even remember why he’d gotten up instead of Maggie. It wasn’t the norm – maybe she’d been sick or something – he’d normally sleep through any noises because that was women’s work. But on this occasion he remembered sinking into that chair, very conscious of how small George junior had been and he had felt a quiet joy which was so pure, so burning hot in its purity, that it tore through every defence and awareness of mortality. He cried because he felt at once so much love for this child and so much fear that he couldn’t protect him from the world.
George hadn’t meant to feel that, hadn’t meant to return there, and, as he came back to the pier with the Angel of Death, he sobbed without restraint.
“Why did you take me back there?” he said as big, bulbous tears fell from his eyes.
“I didn’t, you did. That was the moment in which you were most happy.”
George looked skyward as he wept. “I left that morning. I couldn’t do it, I would’ve been an awful dad. I didn’t see him again until he was a teenager. He hated me by then.”
The youth now stood before him and looked at him square in the face, wings spreading around them both.
“It’s over now George, let it go.”
As he started to seep from his body, George was hit by the relief of it all. Had he known of the use for the French expression “La Petit Mort” as a euphemism for orgasm, he might have compared it to other moments which were now lost to him. But he was just struck by the sensation of lightness, unencumbered by the weight of his body, the burden of all the feelings accumulated and pushed down through his life and, in those last moments of consciousness, he felt something he had never before remembered feeling: freedom.