Moving through the Friday night drinkers, Andrew found a small table against one of the pub’s walls. It was too near the toilets, and it was sticky with splashes of dry beer, but at least it was tucked away. The nearest windows cast the sunlight, strong at pushing 7 o’clock, over the floorboards and the cracked walls, but left the table in shadow. That was good. He knew how rough he looked.
Andrew averted his gaze when a couple of older blokes emerged from the toilet entrance, talking loudly about the match tomorrow. They threaded through the drinkers and the other tables on their way to the bar. Three girls, probably no older than seventeen or eighteen, entered the pub through the infrequently used side door and headed straight for the Ladies’. Knowing he was expected to give them the eye, Andrew did so, checking out their legs in their mini-skirts and fishnet tights like he was at all interested, then looked back at his hands on the sticky table when the doors closed behind the girls.
Despite the shadows surrounding him, a few people were giving him the once over, having a gander at the scruffy man in need of a haircut and clean clothes, wondering when he’d last had a bath, sure he was going to start working his way around the pub to beg for change. Do that and either the landlord or some of the big lads drinking at the bar would chuck him out to the street; probably with a bit of a kicking to see him on his way so the paying customers could enjoy their Friday night in peace without his sort interfering. While signs reading no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish weren’t displayed around here anymore, he knew plenty of men would like to see those signs in the window again. He’d heard what people said about the business in Brixton a few months ago. He’d seen the looks shoppers gave him when they shied away instead of throwing a few pence in his plastic pot. And he definitely knew what the police thought of him: they made that clear with their fists and their feet and every single ugly word they spat at him.
Andrew tried to smile; it hurt his dry lips and made a small ulcer on his lower gum sting. As a distraction, he jammed a hand in the pocket of his tracksuit. Still there. The pound note the old gent had given him a few minutes earlier was safe along with the other couple of quid he’d managed to earn that day. Not a king’s ransom, but it would do. With a bit of luck, he could land a day’s work at the market tomorrow; Saturday was often the best day for cash-in-hand work. The traders didn’t give a shit what he smelled like or how he looked as long as he did what they said and did it fast. Get a bit extra and he could afford a night or two in a B&B that didn’t ask any questions. Then the next week, the cycle would start again: hanging around the train station, looking lost and unsure until a gentleman—always older and well-turned out in a suit, not wanting to go home to the lie he was living with his wife, kids, and family dog—asked if Andrew was all right, if he needed a hand. A look, a smile; holding their gaze for just the right length of time until the deal was done. Then all he had to do was grin and bear it before taking the cash. The men crept home to the Hertfordshire suburbs, and he returned to his life on the street.
This, more or less as it had happened outside a few minutes ago. A man had slipped him that pound note saying Andrew should get something to eat. The man walked on ahead ten steps (Andrew had counted each pace), then returned to introduce himself as Clive. He asked Andrew if he would like a quick pint. It was Friday night, after all, and every young man liked a pint on a Friday night.
So, here he was in the corner of the pub, pretending he was washed and clean and up for a few like any other twenty-five-year-old out on the pull. And it was all pretense, and it was all nothing compared to living day to day while his life fell further and further behind.
The girls came out of the toilets, and Andrew banished the hurt in his heart, replacing it with yet more pretense: he made no attempt to hide his ogling of their backsides. Big lads at the bar did the same. Someone wolf-whistled and the girls found a table before one took her handbag up to the bar. Music broke through the din of laughter and raised voices. The landlord turned up the little radio to blare Shakin Stevens, Green Door. Andrew hated it but hummed along to the tune.
Pretend. That was key. Even if nobody noticed, he had to pretend.
He watched Clive step between three blokes, moving more nimbly than his age might suggest possible.
“Careful now, dad,” one of the men said as beer splashed Clive’s hand. Clive replied—the words lost to Andrew in the music—and the men laughed, barrel chests shaking.
Andrew fixed a smile on his face as Clive reached the table and placed the pints down.
“Sorry that took a while. Busy in here, isn’t it?” Clive sat. They clinked their glasses, and lager foamed over Andrew’s glass. He sipped, reminding himself to drink slowly. There’d been no food since the apples and sausage roll he’d managed to nick at half two. Long hours ago. Now, an empty stomach and a pint of beer. He couldn’t get pissed—not with money to be made with his new friend.
Clive stayed silent for a moment, looking at the other drinkers. He paid the young girls, tarted up for the night out, all the attention everyone would expect. Andrew inhaled the scents of beer and fag smoke: some stale from the ashtray on their table and some fresh from the older lads rolling their own or the people his own age lighting up. Waiting for Clive to break the silence, he swallowed more beer and licked foam off his lips.
“Not your local, is it?” Clive asked.
“I don’t really have one to be honest.”
“No. I shouldn’t suppose you’re able to go out for a pint very often.”
“Not these days.” He went for another smile, hoping it looked more real than it felt.
Clive returned the smile, exposing even teeth. He looked all right for a bloke in his early sixties. Broad-shouldered, still with a fair bit of hair even if it was a combover; decent tone to his chest and arms underneath the turtleneck jumper and jacket he hadn’t removed despite the evening warmth. Tall, too. He had to be the same height as Andrew’s dad . . . but Andrew didn’t want to think about his dad. Even after two years, the memory of the old man chucking him out of the house brought a shame still bright and hot, and a fury that he should be made to feel guilt over who he was.
He dismissed the still-echoing yells of his dad calling him terrible things, and instead studied Clive. Overall, Clive could have passed for fifty: someone’s jolly uncle or maybe the granddad of a toddler. If he went to the pub on a Friday night, it would be to meet up with his mates or old colleagues, not with some homeless Black poof in need of a few quid to survive the streets. But then, Clive was the same as any other man Andrew had spent time with. Like him, they were all pretending. Clive would spend a few coins with Andrew and go home to his wife of however long. The need bubbling inside his chest and his mouth—the need to be himself—would sleep for days or weeks or months. Then it would wake, and he’d go looking for that chance to be free for a short time once again.
“So, tell me, Andrew. You’re young. You’ve got all your life’s potential. May I ask how you’ve ended up in this situation?”
“Sleeping rough?” He kept his voice low. Looking as he did was one thing; drawing attention to his situation was quite another.
“Yes,” Clive replied.
“Not much to say, really.” He sipped his beer, relishing the taste. “Family disagreements, bad luck, lack of money. The usual. You’ll have heard it before.”
Clive nodded and tapped Andrew’s free hand for a moment. Andrew had expected some physical contact sooner rather than later, but this connection hadn’t been suggestive, nor was it powered by any longing. It was a simple human comfort.
“Not much to say about myself either,” Clive said. Distance spread in from the edges of his eyes, turning them cloudy. It was as if long miles of forgotten farmland and woodland had grown up around their table, separating them from the town and all its life. Everything was cold and lonely, but strangely pleasant. In that isolation, that removal from all other life, Andrew felt he could take a breath and leave aside the bad days which had brought him to this point.
“Lost my wife a few years ago,” Clive said, and Andrew returned to the sticky table, the gnawing teeth in his belly and the music from the radio changing. Tainted Love. Almost funny enough to make him want to cry.
It was what his dad had called him. Tainted.
“We had a lad a long time ago.” Clive took a mouthful of his beer, and Andrew forced himself out of his head. If Clive was going to effectively pay for his time, he needed to be present. Not many punters wanted him to look like he was about to start crying.
“Lost him when he was barely twelve. Leukemia. Then my Shirley. She went about three years ago. I had my own company. Scaffolding. Sold it last year. My heart wasn’t in it, and I’m not as young as I used to be, so it seemed for the best.”
Clive let out a breath that shook slightly, and Andrew resisted the urge to brush the man’s fist as Clive had done for him.
“When I saw you out there, I knew you needed a bit of help . . . I don’t know. I thought maybe a pint and a bag of chips might do us both some good.”
“Sounds all right to me,” Andrew said.
Opposite their table, the main entrance opened, ushering in fresh evening air that dispelled the fag smoke. A crowd of workmen, still in their jackets and boots, entered to a chorus of good-natured jeers. They pushed through the drinkers to get to the bar, sunlight and a pleasant breeze following them. Watching the new people and the three Jack the Lads at the bar eyeing up the young girls, Andrew tried not to feel hemmed in by the proximity of so many bodies, by the flesh and the life far removed from his own. Slipping a hand under the table, he picked at a loose fingernail as a distraction and realized Clive had noticed his discomfort.
“It’s lively in here, isn’t it? Not really my scene these days. I might be a bit passed it.” Clive smiled, but his eyes still held that distance. “I prefer a bit of peace and quiet. Somewhere that’s perhaps more . . . I don’t know. Cut off. Removed from all this.” He waved a hand, indicating the bar and the clinging aroma of fags and ale.
“Sounds all right to me,” Andrew replied. Usually, the rule was whatever opinion and view the punter held, he agreed with. Made things easier. This one, though, was an honest answer. He’d never been too keen on noise and boisterousness, especially back in his teenage years when pushing against the truth of who he was grew harder and harder because it had been pushing back on him. With two years of rough sleeping under his belt, he could only stomach this much life for a short time.
Clive took a long swallow of his beer. He’d drunk half already while Andrew still had most of his. Andrew took this as a cue to drink up so they could find a private place to take care of business: a toilet, a secluded area of a nearby park, even the alleyway beside the cinema. He could take his mind off it by wondering what Raiders of the Lost Ark was all about.
Clive lowered his voice. “Can I tell you something, Andrew?”
Here it came. My wife never understood me. We’re similar, you and me. It’s hard when you don’t have someone. Variations on a theme that all boiled down to a few minutes of connection that could never be more than a failed attempt to keep life at arm’s reach: an attempt to keep life from smothering forced hope.
A few words that would then lead to a few quid in his pocket, and they’d never see each other again.
Andrew leaned forward, elbows resting on the dry areas of the table, his eyes on Clive’s while he hoped nobody was paying them any attention. It was damn clear what was happening here.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“If you could go to a place that was completely isolated and removed, would you do it?”
“You mean a holiday?”
Unusual. Punters didn’t usually offer weekends away, but then Clive clearly had a bit of cash. Maybe he was thinking that a brief break in a town would be more amenable to men of their persuasion. Brighton, perhaps?
But this was just more pretense. They weren’t a couple or two people looking for a relationship. He wasn’t in this for any connection and, while he could sometimes take a tiny degree of physical pleasure in his role, it was much too little to make up for doing it in order to live.
“No.” Clive shook his head and lifted his pint. Before having another swallow, he spoke almost too rapidly for Andrew to be sure he’d heard him correctly.
But he had heard him correctly. He saw it in Clive’s eyes, lost to the empty miles of the land beyond the edges of the town where the county rolled away towards London.
I can show you the end of the world.
They walked side by side.
The pub, the flesh and blood, the cinema and the pavements were behind. Ahead, the sky still bright while the sun blazed over the fields and the woods. Inside Andrew’s back pocket, the folded twenty-pound note was secure while his mind repeated Clive’s words.
Twenty now and another twenty if you come for a walk with me. It’s not too far. Two miles, maybe. Come and see what I’ve seen, and you get forty quid for your time.
Whatever nonsense the man was talking about with the end of the world didn’t matter. Forty quid for a quick session in the woods: It would be the easiest cash he’d ever made. And with any luck, he’d convince Clive to round it up to a clean fifty. For fifty quid, he’d tell Clive he believed anything the old gent said—even nonsense about the end of the world.
Warm now in his tracksuit jacket, Andrew unzipped it, unconcerned about exposing his faded t-shirt or his skinny frame. There was nobody to see out here. Nobody to be seen by. Even the traffic was behind now that they’d reached Chadwell Road with nothing but public land ahead. Hedgerows bordered fields which grew larger in the distance. Copses and spreading woodlands grew across the green while unused pathways were simple gray lines. To the east, a new road ended at the beginnings of a housing development. The diggers, earthmovers, and sundry other vehicles—all unmanned until Monday morning. Motionless beasts. Beyond them, the frames of the first new house looked skeletal in the sunset.
“I would like to tell you something, Andrew.” The words were the first Clive had spoken in minutes. Andrew had assumed his new punter would be happy to stay quiet until they reached whichever secret tree or hedge took his fancy for their time together.
“Okay,” Andrew replied.
“I am not a homosexual.”
A punter two weeks ago had spent the entire time he was inside Andrew saying that everyone thought only poofs did this but that wasn’t true because he wasn’t one. He was doing what his wife wouldn’t allow, and Andrew had said that was very true while keeping an eye on the man’s portable telly which was showing bits of the Royal Wedding.
“I don’t have anything against those who are, of course.” Clive might have sounded embarrassed in another situation. Here with only the tread of his shoes and Andrew’s trainers for company while the breeze laid gentle fingers on Andrew’s hair, it was utterly matter of fact.
“Of course.” Andrew couldn’t resist brushing a hand against his back pocket.
“Not far to go.” Clive pointed vaguely ahead. The route appeared no different save for a few trees encroaching on the path. Within a few minutes, they’d be level with the beginnings of the housing development. After that, there was only nature to use as a landmark.
“I walk a fair bit. It’s good to keep fit and active, especially at my age.” Clive took a deep breath. “I’ve always liked this town. The streets, the people, but out here in the peace and quiet is where I’m happiest. I found it by accident. Just walked straight into it and realized I was looking at . . .” He smiled. “Ridiculous, isn’t it? I was looking at the end of the world and walked right into it like that.” He clicked his fingers.
Andrew’s laugh was soft. Always best to go along with the punter, although he couldn’t deny the slight edge of apprehension creeping along his back to his neck. Clive wasn’t ranting or losing any control, but this end of the world malarkey was very odd. Punters in denial, punters who tossed coins or pound notes at him afterwards and then returned to their wives—they were what he knew. This was strange.
But still, the cash. And if worst came to worst, he had best part of forty years on Clive. He could move like Speedy Gonzalez and leave the old man out here in the middle of nowhere if he had to.
“It’s not for everyone.” Clive sounded more like he was talking to himself than to Andrew. The old man obviously had something on his mind: hopefully a quick bunk up would keep it at bay for long enough.
“I think it’s for people who want to see it. People like you and me. We want a bit of peace, don’t we? I mean, everything is just too . . . busy now, isn’t it? Nice to take a break.”
“Yes.” Andrew shifted his pace a fraction to his right, putting a slightly larger gap between them. Clive wasn’t dangerous. He was reasonably sure of that but still, he had no wish to put himself at risk. There’d been many a time when a punter had tried using their fists after a session, and it was only Andrew’s preparedness that had kept him from a beating.
Clive fell silent again. They walked. The sunset became a deeper, richer red that promised another bright day tomorrow. Autumn belonged a few weeks away. Winter was a distant threat; he would need to do something about sleeping on the streets. For now, though, he had the soft trill of birdsong as they roosted in high branches. They’d drawn beyond the edges of the housing development and were now level with flatter land marked by a few trees and odd solitary house surrounded by fields.
“You remind me of my son,” Clive said abruptly. It sounded as if he had forced the words up through a blocked throat. He kept his gaze on the route ahead where the trees bunched closer to the path.
“Really?” Andrew inwardly winced. Was that what this was about? Old grief over his lost son causing Clive to seek out Andrew because of an unlikely resemblance? And if that was the case, and the old man did want a seeing to, Andrew wasn’t going for that. Forty quid or not, he didn’t do sick stuff. Clive would have to find one of the other lads in Andrew’s situation who’d be agreeable to such an act. The town held them in the lonelier places—in alleys and streets left to the rats, and the rubbish, and the smackheads.
“You’re older, of course. And he wasn’t Black.” Clive said it like Andrew had asked. “We lost him when he was twelve. But you have similar eyes. Kind.” He finally looked at Andrew and smiled.
“Nice of you to say so.”
“It all but destroyed my wife when we lost Phillip. She hid away, and there was nothing I could do for her. I think when we found out what was wrong with her insides . . . when we knew it was cancer, she was almost happy about it. It meant she didn’t have to pretend anymore.”
We’re all pretending, Andrew came close to saying. Only snapping his teeth together prevented the thought from being born as words.
“When I found this bit of land and realized I was looking at the end of the world, that was a relief for me in the same way, I think. It meant a bit of peace that nothing else can touch. All the noise and the people and the trouble in the towns and cities. It’s not allowed out here. When I saw you on the street, I thought, there’s a lad who could do with seeing the same.”
He could have been describing a fond memory. All was calm and controlled with only a tinge of bittersweet sadness, and Andrew relaxed. Clive obviously wasn’t right, but maybe it didn’t matter too much. There were people a few miles away who’d hurt him for what he was and not think twice about it—people who’d ruin lives for a quid or a pack of fags. Clive wasn’t one on of those men. He was just an old guy who’d lost his family and turned a little piece of nowhere into his private retreat—his small piece of heaven. And really, Andrew thought, what was wrong with that? Not like the man was hurting anyone with his pretense.
He drew closer to Clive and let his pace fall in step with the older man’s. They covered another quarter of a mile without speaking. The sky was on fire and the air still warm. Perspiration on Andrew’s neck dried, and he wondered what the chances were of going home with Clive after this. A bath would be lovely. He watched a bird swoop from the branches of a tall tree, the creature like a bullet as it bore down on something tiny in the undergrowth, its shadow a rapidly growing black pool on the lush green.
“Just there,” Clive said, pointing.
Ahead, the path declined abruptly and contracted. Trees on either side entwined their branches, the spiky limbs forming a ceiling of sorts. To Andrew, the image resembled an entrance into an ancient building. A castle, perhaps, or a church built centuries ago. An odd idea, but one he could not shake off.
“Stop when I tell you to,” Clive murmured.
Here it came. Probably a lunge, a stumble into the bushes and Andrew’s chest and face against a tree trunk while Clive fumbled with his trousers.
“Will do,” Andrew replied.
They followed the sloping path. Cool shadows closed in from the trees, and the branches dappled the sunset light into bleeding sparkles.
“Right here.” Clive grabbed Andrew’s wrist.
They stood together, looking at the area beyond the overhanging trees. Clive’s grip was rock solid, his fingers and palm burning hot. Andrew held his breath. Dribbles of sweat dampened his lips.
“Do you see it?” Clive hissed, and Andrew realized his punter was crying.
Side by side, they faced the end of the world.
Andrew finally let his breath go, but silently. Clive’s grip on his wrist remained strong. Pulling away without forcibly removing Clive was impossible, and that would undo everything. Andrew stared at the miles of unused land, the sloping fields, the higher hills and the few pathways and trails which ascended into those hills. Not a soul in view and everything rested under the growing twilight. Even the birds had deserted the sky, presumably to settle down in their nests. The breeze, soft but insistent during their walk, had died. In the stillness, the warmth held to his body: a soft warmth as comforting as his mother’s embrace in the few moments his father hadn’t been a ranting, furious animal. He needed to sit, to take the pressure of his aching feet and sore legs, to simply rest and inhale the ending of the day in this little piece of the land that he didn’t know existed. And yet, here it was. All of half an hour’s walk from the grime and the shit of the streets, unknown to the shoppers, the drinkers, the police, and the low-level criminals with their connections to bad men in London. Here was piece of Heaven. Clive’s Heaven shared with him. The empty space beyond the archway of trees: greens and browns and a quilted patchwork of both colors more vibrant than he would have expected. Open country untouched by human life. A place of purity that was at its best right now. In the last minutes of the day, trembling on a fine line between day and night, this was the perfect time to see Clive’s Heaven and weep for its beauty.
“Do you see it? The end of the world?” Clive breathed.
Andrew had to swallow. He had no saliva, and his throat clicked. His heart beat like a bird’s wings, and coherent thought failed him.
He stepped forward, pulling Clive. There was a slight tug. Clive let go of his wrist as if the grip had been as soft as tissue, and a painless thud struck Andrew in the center of his back. Ignoring it, he stared at the land.
Because it had changed.
The shape remained the same. He saw where some of the fields met their borders of hedgerows before flowing into the next or ending at one of the thin trails. Healthy greens and smooth browns had been taken over by churned up muck and blasted earth.
Flame had seared Heaven, leaving trees as little more than withered candles. The remains of several hedgerows were husks while others were crushed under ruptured ground, driven upwards in sheets of rocks. Cracks and tears in the path had opened it to the darkness below. Above everything, the sunset shone but was now a mockery. Instead of a vibrant painting of red strokes, it was a bleeding wound lit by black sheet lightning. Instead of flowing a hundred miles overhead and offering a shelter for life from the emptiness beyond, it hung low, ready to fall and crush the destruction at its feet.
Andrew was looking at life unmade.
Clive had been telling the truth. Here was the end of all of it: a glimpse of the apocalypse so close to the town where families lived in ignorance of what was coming. All the lights going out once, the end of everything crept closer to the archway of trees then slid along the road he and Clive had walked.
The shock of seeing everything turned over—Heaven to this Hell—stayed in Andrew’s heart while realization that Clive had been right about another issue struck him.
This was peace. The land destroyed, the sky an open wound—this was still peace. The planet had been murdered, and this was the corpse. Ugly and battered with nothing left to do but molder, but peaceful all the same. Attacks and beatings were things of the past. Here, the land slept in its grave and that was as bittersweet as Clive’s memory of his lost son.
Andrew tried to lift a hand to reach for the air, desperate to place his skin on the broken fields and rubble. The unconscious command from his brain to his fingers stuttered, and all he managed was a slight twitch in his wrist still warm from Clive’s hold. Frowning, he stared at his limp hand and attempted to raise it again.
No, there was something. A faint movement on the underside of his forearm. Slight heat. He couldn’t turn his arm. He could only watch the red drip from the sleeve of his tracksuit to the ground in a soft raindrop.
The thud in his back. The dripping red. The end of the world.
He fell forward and Clive caught him, the man’s arms corded with muscle from years of outdoor work and manual labor. Clive held him with a father’s love, his heartbeat good and solid under his clothes. Andrew managed to shift his gaze to Clive’s face without turning his head. Muscle control was a thing of the past. So was understanding. Both had been taken over by an icy chill in the center of his chest and salt in his mouth.
He dribbled blood, tried to turn in Clive’s grip, and finally registered the icicle in his back. It was as if winter had become a solid object and pierced his skin, his bone. The night ate the sunset and that gathering gloom brought further understanding.
Clive had stabbed him. Moments or seconds before, he’d plunged a knife into his spine, and Heaven so close to being in reach had been buried under a little piece of the apocalypse.
Andrew tried to speak. He could only gag on the blood flooding his mouth and the sensation of ice in his spine.
“I know this is difficult.” Clive still held him. He smiled, and it lit dancing sparks in his eyes. “Don’t for a minute think this is because of who you are, Andrew. I’m not a monster, and I don’t judge anyone for what God made them or for the color of their skin. I simply wanted to show you what’s after for us. The end of your world.”
He dragged Andrew to the edge of the path where it dropped in a deep embankment. Overgrown grasses and greenery cast shadows in the cool undergrowth, and the land was oddly uneven. Gagging again, Andrew managed to focus on the countryside. The ruins were gone. So was Heaven. There was nothing but ordinary land out there, pretty and tranquil, yes, but no different than the surrounding fields, broken by the earth movers and diggers and frames of the new homes.