Luke couldn’t help but notice that his shoulder felt fine as he began the 45 storey decent.
It has often been said that our lives flash before our eyes just before we die. Perhaps a failsafe to show us the places we’ve been, the relationships we’ve formed and the things we’ve experienced to try and kick start a last ditch attempt at survival. Dangling the carrot to make you go that little bit further. Congratulations, you’ve earned yourself some great prizes. Now, would you like to leave with what you’ve got or would you like to gamble?
Even as it started, Luke realised that this built in defence mechanism was pretty much useless in his situation. Hurtling towards the concrete below with a bullet tearing apart the muscles in his shoulder, it would take a monumental amount of luck to keep him in the game. The first few moments felt like they were in slow motion. He felt as though he could see each and every tiny movement of the hundreds of shards of glass that surrounded him. And then, in those shards, the reflections of all he had seen and experienced.
Inconsequential moments in his early childhood. The weird shit that kids remember. An advert for some toothpaste with a catchy jingle and an ominous set of teeth that used to freak him out. That time he stuck a stone up his nose and frantically tried to remove it in a blind panic, terrified that his parents would be angry with him. A toy telephone on wheels that he barely played with but was always there. Figuring out how to climb out of his cot. Being sick in the high street. The rabbit on his name badge on the hook he hung his coat on at Primary School. He always bloody hated that rabbit. Chris had a lion, Paul had an elephant; even Marie had that big dog thing, and that was way cooler, and she was a girl. Why was he stuck with a rabbit? It looked a bit off too, like an extra from Watership Down. The bit in Watership Down when the seagull said ‘piss off’. That was just about the funniest thing a five year old could see. It was so naughty. The time his birthday card was shown on the television. Winning a huge great Transformer in a raffle. Winning nearly four pounds on one of those 2p machines at the arcades on the seafront. His Dad’s face when Luke got the winner in the Grand National and landed him four hundred and something quid. Everyone was so happy with him but he had no idea why. He could feel the combination of confusion and pride. He was always winning.
More of that was to come.
The glass began to reflect full scenes rather than static images as his own burgeoning memory began to take shape, and he advanced into his school years. He noticed they all had that soft fuzziness, like you see on old American television shows, and that weird brown tint that he always noticed in the photos of him as a kid in the eighties. But it was different to just watching, he was reliving. Simultaneously running through the events himself, while casually observing them behind the scenes. It was as if his older self had always been there, watching his every move. Rolling his eyes and smirking at the silly things he was doing.
A Christmas. Not too sure when. At a guess he must be about seven or eight. He’d been awake for hours, clock watching; willing the hands round until seven when his parents said he could get up. Those times were magical. Sat in the dark, day dreaming about the contents of the parcels under the tree. He looked at the clock as the second hand slowly crept past the twelve, closed his eyes and counted to sixty. He had always been competitive. Not so much against others, but against himself. Setting himself tiny games to pass the time and prove his superiority over the laws that govern all of us. He opened his eyes just as the hand hit twelve. Perfect. He allowed himself a little celebration, waited for the hand to complete its circuit, closed his eyes and started counting again.
‘…fifty seven, fifty eight, fifty nine, sixty!’
Spot on. This was too easy. Part of his competitiveness compelled him to make the challenges harder, so he found his Walkman, stuck in a tape, pressed play and put the headphones on. The hand rolled round once more and he closed his eyes and started counting while the music blared in his ears. It was distracting. The rhythm was all over the place. He couldn’t remember the band or even the song which was a bit odd as he was pretty sure he had listened to that tape hundreds of times. But he could remember the moment he opened his eyes just as the second hand reached the top and the feeling of disappointment washing over him. He’d won again. This game was rubbish.
Shoe shopping. God he hated shoe shopping. The pressure was unbearable. Caught between the desire to find the right pair so that the kids at school wouldn’t take the piss and the glare of an increasingly stressed Father as shoe after shoe were taken off his feet after a disgruntled scrunch of his nose. Mum being Mum, all supportive smiles and wistful sighs at the whims of a fussy, ungrateful kid. As Luke looked back at himself he wished that his younger self would look up at his Mum more. His memories of her had always been fuzzy and he wanted to take this unlikely opportunity to catch a further glance. But it wasn’t happening. He was too fascinated with the overpriced lumps of material round his feet. Ungrateful little shit. Look at her you prick. Look at her.
Stood in front of the mirror in the hall while Aunt Jools fussed over him. Brushing non-existent dirt off his shoulders. She’s avoiding looking at him in the eye, either directly or through the mirror, but Luke can see it in her face. The look of exhaustion. She hasn’t been sleeping, and every moment she’s been awake has been taking something out of her. The loss has affected them all in different ways. Jools has been frantic, panicked; sporadically exploding into floods of tears. Dad is in denial. Carrying on as normal. Perhaps drinking a little more. Luke is just numb. Like something has come along and scooped out all of his insides, leaving a vacuous space inside his chest. Everybody is being so nice to him but he can’t forget, not even for a moment. It’s always there, nagging away at the back of his head. He’s only eleven and she’s gone.
He can see the wake now. It’s in some pub. Not particularly fancy or up Mum’s street. He realised back then that this was going to be the kind of thing he’d best get used to. Crappy sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Wandering around a sea of half-cut, chain-smoking grown-ups he gradually makes his way to Dad who is sat in the corner with a couple of his friends with a huge cloud of smoke hanging over them. He catches his eye and smiles weakly. Dad motions him over, and once he makes his way to the table, he’s lifted and placed on his knee.
‘How you holding up?’
‘Fine. Bored though.’
‘Do you want to go to the park? It’s only round the corner and I could do with the fresh air.’
Luke nods silently, and his Dad quickly finishes his drink before clicking his fingers in the direction of Jools.
‘Just nipping out for a bit. Taking Luke to the park. You alright here for a few minutes?’
Jools manages to drag her sobbing face away from her hanky just long enough to give a nod and a weird contorted half smile, half grimace and then they’re outside and his Dad lights another cigarette.
‘Got to get out of there for a bit. It’s a bit much isn’t it?’
Luke quietly slips his hand into that of his Dad’s as they make their way towards the park. His Dad squeezes it three times. He always used to do that. Like a way of letting him know he was there without having to go through the embarrassment of actually saying it.
‘It might not seem like it now Luke, but we’re very lucky, you and I.’
As he finished, Luke narrowly avoided stepping in some dog shit and noticed a screwed up bit of paper in the gutter. Letting go of his Dad’s hand, he stooped down to pick it up. It was a fiver.
His Dad laughs to himself and flicks his cigarette butt expertly into the storm drain, before pulling the packet back out of his inside pocket and lighting another. Even back then Luke was kind of aware that Mum’s passing was related to those thin, burning sticks that grown-ups liked. He definitely knew she had something wrong with her breathing. The last few months she was a cacophony of wheezes and coughs. Funny thing is, he never actually saw her smoke. With Dad it was almost a constant presence. It made him happy.
‘Here you go Dad. You can buy some more.’
‘Nah, you keep it. Get yourself some sweets or a magazine.’
They arrived at the park and Dad lifted him onto the swing and slowly built up the momentum until he was flying.
And then he was falling.
He was back to the now. The pace was building up now and his memories started to come thick and fast. The months after Mum went were pretty tricky. He saw glimpses of his Dad and some woman drunkenly climbing the stairs as he peeked round my bedroom door. He saw Dad crying in the kitchen when he didn’t think he was there. They saw Auntie Jools less and less until all that was left was him and his Dad, spending night after night in near silence as Dad drank and smoked until it was time to go to bed.
And then one day it got better and he came home from school to find Thirteen.
Looking at himself, he must have just been a teenager. He was in his high school uniform and had just waved goodbye to his friends to see Dad standing at the door with a tiny black ball of fluff curled up in his arms. A huge great smile cracked across his Dad’s face, the kind he hadn’t seen for a long time. It was infectious and Luke smiled back as he inquisitively made his way up the garden path. This memory was the clearest yet, as he looked at the tiny pile of hair and noticed it had whiskers and ears. It was a kitten. A beautiful, tiny, black kitten.
‘What do you want to call it?’
A few days later. Luke has the video camera set up in the hallway watching Thirteen play with three ping pong balls. She’s acting like a lunatic. Entertaining, scaring and confusing herself in equal measure. Then, she batters all three at once and they fly off into Dad’s bedroom. Luke picks up the cat and makes his way in to retrieve the balls only to find that they’ve all made their way into the tin cup of Dad’s practice golf lawn. Luke runs back into the hallway grabs the camera and records the result of his kittens superior golfing skills.
‘What are the chances of that?!’
This gives him an idea. Setting the camera back on the tripod at one end of the room, he places the tin cup on top of wardrobe before standing at the other end of the room with the ping pong balls. He throws each one individually and watches as they arc perfectly through the air before each one lands delicately in the cup.
He holds the results up to the camera.
‘Too easy, eh?’
He gets the balls, moves the cup to the back of the wardrobe so only the very top is visible and stands with his back to it at the other end of the room. He throws each one over his shoulder, listening out for the satisfying ‘clink’ as they each fall perfectly into the cup.
The day his Dad found the videotape. His was fuming. Over three hours of Luke throwing ping pong balls into the cup in increasingly complicated and impossible ways. Bouncing them off walls, off his head, through tubes, along surfaces, adding spin, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, in the bath, from a different room, down the stairs, over, under, through, around with each scene finishing with all three balls landing satisfyingly into the tiny goal. As his Dad ranted and raged, he couldn’t understand what he’d done other than make an incredibly cool video. A week later he found out.
They said it could have been from a lit cigarette, but they were unsure. Luke’s Dad was adamant though. It was Luke’s fault. Whatever had caused their house to be burned to the ground was on his conscience.
‘This is what happens when you waste your luck.’
Luke saw himself tentatively make his way through the wreckage. It was destroyed. Everything was lost. Most of it could be replaced. Dad always did well for money, even when he was on his own, but some things, pictures of Mum, were surely gone forever.
His heart sank. Thirteen. Where was she? He frantically made his way round the house, making the squeaking noise with his lips that normally saw her running. Nothing in the kitchen, nor the living room. He’d been warned not to climb the stairs as there had been significant damage, but he had to check. Gently testing each step before placing his full weight, he managed to make his way to the top. It was up here, on the first floor, that he saw the fire could be no one else’s fault but his. The scorch marks on the wall, even to his untrained eye, clearly originated from his bedroom, the one place that Dad never lit up.
With the guilt now coursing through his entire body, he continued to search for his cat. He clicked his fingers desperately calling her name over and over. A movement. From the corner of his room, under his bed. Something was definitely there. He made his way as quickly as he could over to the source of the noise and look under the remnants of his mattress.
Two green eyes stared back at him. And right next to her, was an immaculately preserved picture of his mother.
He never told his Dad through fear of having the picture taken from him. The very least he could have done would be to have listened to his Dad’s advice and never taken his gift for granted again. Never pushed his luck. Never wasted it. Perhaps if he did he wouldn’t have found himself now only fourteen floors and less than two seconds from having his head smashed against the pavement.
The memories were a blur now. Like a time lapse film from a nature documentary. The sun rose and set thousands of times as relationships grew and broke down, money came and went and his face became weathered with age. Judy featured surprisingly little, Thirteen was a constant. He saw his futile and increasingly dangerous attempts to recapture the thrill of the Ping Pong Cup Afternoon. Fruit machines, horse races, casinos. A hundred card games; the continuous flow of money, the look of disbelief on his opponents faces and the ever decreasing satisfaction of winning. It seemed that everything after the fire had been in direct defiance of his Dad’s advice. Always pushing his luck. Always wasting it.
Finally, he’s 45 storeys up, in over his head, pushing his luck that little bit too far. As clear as it was a less than a minute ago, he saw the anger, the chaos, the gun, the bullet and the window.
Then, they were gone, and all he could see was the grey, emotionless expanse of concrete inches from his face. He heard the sound of a few pieces of glass hit the pavement before he heard an unearthly crunch. Then he could see and hear nothing.
A beat; and he felt nothing.