“About the only place you’re going to find a smile in this world,” said Paul. “On the giant, decapitated head of a fucking fairground clown.” He slumped back onto the pile of rubble behind and let out a groan of relief. They’d been walking for days. “Lot I have to break down and explain for you in that sentence, Erin. You were too young at the time to cop what was going on.”
The dark sky rumbled and the clouds overhead opened on cue, dumping down another torrent of rain, the water taking only seconds to begin pouring in through the shattered roof of the arcade.
“Fun. Humour. Comedy. That was the first to go. People, well for the most part anyhow, got afraid to laugh at anyone else’s expense. And the best jokes are always at the expense of someone. You’d supress the laugh until you looked around first and checked the coast was clear for anyone who could have been offended, make sure you weren’t sitting near anyone fat, skinny, wearing glasses, or clothes intended for the opposite sex to the one they were born with, before you let rip. At the very least, you waited until a couple of other people were laughing first. Heaven forbid anyone should be offended.
I went to school with a guy called Peter Parker, I shit you not, and another poor unfortunate named James James. You don’t need to be Stephen King to dream up the hellish playground experiences those short straw bastards endured. There was some kid grew up around the corner from me with Nigerian parents. They called her Comfort. Her sister, her name was Princess. Christ on a bike. Did these people not think, anticipate even for a second the road ahead for their offspring and the ticking time bomb monikers they were saddling them with?
No, not that. The last time I used the sick kid excuse, he actually got sick a few days later. Really sick. Now, I don’t believe in fate, but I don’t want to go tempt the fucker either. I’ve already been to two family funerals this year in far-flung parts of this godforsaken country and it’s only March, so best not to go to the well on that one again. Plus I can’t remember whether it’s my mother or my mother-in-law who I told them snuffed it last year, and I have to imagine this shit gets written down somewhere. I only had the flu, genuinely, straight after Christmas, and if I played the measles or pox card I would have to say it came by way of the kid. And I refer you to point one; he’d end up dying of a lethal one-in-a-million strain of it next week. Is that fate or karma? Whichever. They both have my card marked. No this one is going to have to be on me. And I’m going to have to make it stick. When I come back from “sickness” or “injury” I like to still sport some residual effect. A cough. A limp. But I’m not Daniel Day fucking Lewis. It’s hard to keep that shit in character. And by eleven, I’ll be floating around the office like Fred Astaire. Yeah this one has to stick and stick good. Which means it requires a little, shall we say, realism. Which brings me here to the pedestrian crossing. The one where the mindless lemmings amble out in front of bicycles and buses long after the signal tells them not to, practically begging to be maimed or mangled. Which I see happen from time to time, adrenaline and embarrassment pulling them up off the ground back to their feet and to the side of the road where someone will be busy calling them an ambulance. I curse their stupidity every morning. But now I salute them. In truth they are inspirational geniuses. Like a surfer standing on the beach waiting on the perfect wave, I size up the vehicles preparing for the light to go green and choose my set.
There was something about the walk. That determined yet effortless gait. The purposeful pace. The figure was still too far off to know for sure, and the tracksuit was something his dad would never normally wear, but Swan’s heart bungee-jumped down into the pit of his stomach all the same. It stayed there dangling as he tried to bring the approaching face into focus. He hadn’t seen or spoken to his dad in a long time. Years. Too many years. They hadn’t fallen out, just lost touch, but he had no idea why or what to say – “oh hello” didn’t seem to cut it – if they were to bump into each other like this, by stupid happenstance, now. The man’s fast advancing pace had brought him too close for Swan to turn around and go back the way he came. There were no doorways or gaps between the parked cars big enough to accommodate his escape. Swan swallowed, tested a smile, then thought better of it, wondered whether he should go for hands in or hands out of his pockets. He straightened his hair, shined his right shoe on the back of his left trouser leg and braced for impact. Fifteen feet. Ten. Five. The stranger glanced up from the imaginary line he was following on the sidewalk and looked into Swan’s face, then sidestepped to the left and continued past. Swan’s chest cavity slowly winched his heart back up into its rightful position and he took out his phone, scrolling through the contacts to D.