by Lee Hamblin
The camera is pointed at a boy sat on a rack and ruin bench in a frost-bitten park. There’s a gothic church to the right, Victorian apartment block to the left. Slate-grey London. Thatcher’s Britain. Pigeons peck at crumbs from the wastebin by the bench. A black Labrador bursts into shot, grabs something from the grass and exits left with a stick in its jaw. The pigeons scatter. The boy has his head bowed—though it bobs rhythmically up and down. His hair has the look of a grown-out skinhead—the should I or shouldn’t I of an in-betweeny. There is no sound on the film. There is no colour. Headphones in the form of small black foamed discs cover his ears, and a thin wire trails down into his overcoat pocket.
The file said New Year’s Day 1983. It appeared in my inbox yesterday, along with a message from the wife of a once best friend whom I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years. She wrote that James had recently died, and that she’d come across this and thought I might be interested in it – something to remember him by, she wrote. The note was brief and signed much love though I have never met her. In 1983 I was sixteen years old. I remember this like it was yesterday but see a stranger sat there. I wonder how Jimmy died, and then ask myself why the fuck it matters how he died, as if death isn’t tragedy enough.
The boy in the film is listening to music he taped from the radio. Bono sings about reunion, and the boy feels like crying, comes close. The song cuts off abruptly. The boy flips the cassette, clicks play. Krautrock drums and fazing synthesizers swathe the voice of Ian Curtis. The camera pans to the clock on the church tower, which says 9, then back to the boy. The boy does the calculation in his head, 9 hours gone in the year, 8751 to go, that’s a lot of time to fill with thoughts. He likes doing calculations. He lifts his head when prompted by the filmmaker, mouths Joy Division, then withdraws into his shell again. Nothing happens for the next few seconds, but Jimmy holds the frame, seeing something beautiful in the nothing. The boy is sat on the back of the bench, feet on the base, tapping in time to the drums. He nearly tumbles when taking a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, shows the pack to Jimmy. Jimmy steps closer, his hand in front of the lens for a moment as he reaches to take one. He’s wearing woollen gloves he’d cut the fingertips off, remnants of black varnish marble his nails. The boy shows a plain silver Zippo lighter, lights Jimmy’s cigarette, then his own.
Jimmy was two years older than me. Gary’s best mate for ten years, mine for a couple. Summer ’84, Jimmy went to the States as a summer-camp teacher. I don’t know when, or if he ever came back. By then I was living in a squat south of the river, didn’t even say goodbye.
Exhaled smoke clouds the lens, the image snatches boy, shoes, dark muddy earth, darker muddier sky before steadying and panning left. The High Street. The Crown and Anchor pub on the corner, a red-crossed flag flashes from an upstairs window. Shops for carpet, betting, dry-cleaning, Woolworths general store, the greasy-spoon café where we play the fruit machine and spend school lunch money on tea and toast. The camera stills. Along the path from the east comes Footloose Fred, the local tramp. He’s pushing a cardboard walled supermarket trolley with his everything inside. He lives underneath the flyover. Ravelled hair tumbles down past his shoulders. His trousers are tied at the ankle with packing string. He hardly lifts his feet as he walks, shuffles because pounding the streets is a challenge for worn-out knees. The black Labrador runs up to him and jumps, sniffs his groin, his hands, its tail wagging happy. The camera switches to a woman in a thick suede coat and light-coloured Wellington boots. She mouths the dog’s name, edginess written all in her face. She bends her legs, slaps her thighs, throws a stick. The dog returns and gets petted with blessed relief. The lady leashes the dog and walks towards the Victorian flats. She doesn’t look back. Footloose Fred notices the filmmaker, laughs, and takes a theatrical bow.
The film dissolves to black.
Closing my eyes, the movie plays on.
I click stop on the Walkman, slide off the headphones. Jimmy puts the camera down, stubs out his cigarette on the bench, flicks the butt away.
‘How come you didn’t join up when Gary did?’ I ask Jimmy.
‘Nearly did,’ he replies, ‘couldn’t face the training I guess, or the haircut…or the shitty uniform.’ He sweeps his long fringe across his brow. ‘What you gonna do next year, go to college?’
‘Doubt it,’ I say.
‘You could, you’re the clever one.’
‘I was,’ I say, ‘I was.’
I open my eyes, and a single tear spills down my cheek. I’m still the boy in the film, still working it out one day at a time, just older, understanding at least, that while loss is precise, grief takes a lifetime of figuring out.
Lee’s stories have been published in FlashBack Fiction, MoonPark Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Reflex, Ellipsis, and other places. He lives in Greece, where he teaches Yoga. He’s @lee_c_hamblin on Twitter. Find links to his published work at http://www.hamblin1.wordpress.com/.