by Lee Hamblin

It’s a little after six in the morning, cold enough for ghost breath and damp enough to feel an ache in your hips. Bill’s car is sat on the forecourt of a twenty-four hour garage. The heater’s on, kicking out warm at best. He’s only travelled five minutes from home and needs coffee to spark him into life. An underdressed smeary-eyed raver on a night out is queued ahead of him. She’s finding funny anything and everything the server says, mimicking him parrot-fashion. Bill treads on the spot to get his blood flowing, his body moving. He keeps looking outside. His car’s a banger, not worth nicking, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be. The girl persists with her foolery; the blank-faced server doesn’t engage, it being nothing he’s not seen or heard thousands of times before. From a teeny-weeny shoulder bag the girl extracts and hands over a twenty-pound note. The server shows it to the light, affirms it as good, and hands her change counted out piecemeal. She pockets the coins, zips up the bag, turns, and smacks head first into Bill. She falls and grabs a tight hold of Bill’s arm. He steadies both her and the cutout tray of coffees she’s carrying in the other hand. Chocolate bars skedaddle across the floor. The coffee survives. Her laughter chokes and her face pales as she’s wondering whether she’s bumped into the wrong guy at the wrong time.

Bill sports a dark untidy beard, flecked with red and white bristles. He has heavy- lidded red-rimmed eyes slunk deep into their sockets. His head is covered with a black beanie a workmate bought him from the States. The motif could be that of a baseball or football team, of a gazelle or a panther, he doesn’t care; its only job is to keep his nut warm. Neither puffa jacket nor beanie hide the fading tattoo on his neck, a crucifix drawn perilously close to the carotid artery. A snake coils around the vertical pillar, the head of which is open-mouthed, vampire-fanged, and dripping with red dots. Bill had it done many years ago; a teenage dare, lager induced and peer pressured. It’s not the work of a crafted artist. He considers it an obelisk of regret, but the girl wouldn’t know that, she’d just see it as creepy ugly, because nobody has time for second impressions.

The girl rights herself with Bill’s help. She huffs a sigh and takes a step back. Her mouth opens as if to speak, but only air escapes, her blood-red lips shudder. Bill can’t remember the last time he felt a woman’s grip, when he last made love, when he last felt loved; he wonders if the girl can read his thinking and hopes she can’t. She steps away and bends down, tugging at her clothes, suddenly conscious of her bareness. She picks up the chocolate bars. Bill’s eyes seek elsewhere as she leaves; his gaze settles on the other car on the forecourt, a snow-white four by four parked out front throbbing with bass heavy electronica and three kite-high occupants head-nodding as one. A rear door opens and she slips into her comfort zone.

Bill collects his order, takes a slug of his brew, and licks away the froth decking his top lip. He makes a mental note to get to the barber this weekend that he’ll not have time for what with the backlog at work. He tosses the croissant he didn’t want but took anyway because it came free with the coffee onto the windscreen dashboard. He turns on the radio so not to be alone: new music that’s brittle, contrived, and disposable, music that sounds nothing at all like the old.

Lee Hamblin is a Londoner living in Greece for the past decade. He’s had stories published in MoonPark Review, Stories for Homes Volume 2, Bath Flash Fiction Volume 2, Blue Fifth Review, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, STORGY, Flash Frontier, Spelk, Reflex, F(r)onlineHe tweets @kali_thea and puts words here: https://hamblin1.wordpress.com