How Long Will This Go On?
New Ghost Stories case no. 314
|David Paul Nixon||Oct 26, 2019|
The first time I saw the old man was on the Northern line. I’d take the train from Elephant & Castle all the way up to King’s Cross. Elephant & Castle is an early stop so I’d normally get a seat. Lots of people piled on before it started moving. I spotted his blank grey face amongst them.
I didn’t quite get what was so weird about him at first. His stare was creepy. He looked pretty intense, but he wasn’t really looking at anything in particular. He was just some strange-looking guy. If we’d been passing through Camden, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
I mustn’t have thought too much about him because I drifted off to sleep somewhere between Borough and London Bridge. It was another long day. The third that week. I’d messaged Milly to say I’d be late. Normally, I’d get a text back at least saying ‘Ok’, or ‘no worries’. I’d got nothing before I’d taken the elevator down to the platform. That meant I was probably going to be in trouble when I got home. Although she didn’t really get angry with me any more. She’s a master of the silent treatment.
Maybe I’d be lucky. In a text earlier she said that Cleo had been quieter than normal. She might’ve been busy or asleep when I’d texted her. She might just have expected me to be late. It was getting to be a habit and it wasn’t going to be ending any time soon.
I hadn’t planned to keep my job; I’d started to look for something else. But then content migration kicked off and they hired a lot more staff to do it. They needed people with experience to supervise. I got promoted because I’d been there a few years and knew the systems.
We decided it was best for me to take it for the sake of the money. The project, which I already knew was going to be big, was going to take us to August for the launch of the autumn ranges. That was only two weeks before Cleo was due. I was sure the project would overrun – because they always do. But I was taking time off at the birth no matter what. If it overran, it was someone else’s problem.
But the new content system did what it was supposed to do – it made sales go up. When that happened, leadership started asking, “Why aren’t we doing this faster?” With the economy being so bad and the high street struggling, why were we taking our time when we could be making more money ahead of Christmas?
So the project I started on became phase 1. We ended up having a phase 2 and 3 and 4. We needed to hire new staff. I got promoted to line manager, even though I didn’t get paid like one, and never got the training. But there was some overtime pay. So me and Milly think we’ll at least get some extra cash; we know we’re gonna need it.
Then phase 2 hit loads of problems. The people building the content management system discover what they’ve built to show off womenswear doesn’t work so well on tableware or toys or furniture. We could’ve told them that, but no one asked. You have a system that sizes your images in a way that looks good when it’s a size zero model, but when it’s showing a tea kettle, it either looks too far away or way too close.
We have people in my team sizing images on Photoshop who’ve never even used Photoshop before. Just to meet our deadlines. And the systems keep failing when you need them.
It’s always the same: no one wants to spend money making the tech work, because no one making the decisions knows anything about tech. They never have to use it. And if you somehow get it live and it looks ok, then there’s no rush to sort out the problem. Once it’s done, no one cares how much of a ball-ache it all was.
I wake up when the train’s leaving Angel. I’m thinking about work even when I’m asleep. I’m just glad to get some sleep.
The train has started to empty now. I look down the carriage and see the old man is still there. I can see him better now: he’s dressed like he just got out of bed. He’s wearing sandals and what looks like pyjamas. He’s thrown an overcoat over the top to keep him warm; it’s filthy dirty. He hasn’t shaved for days. His white hair is sticking out on all sides, but he’s bald on top.
He looks like a total nutter. I get off at King’s Cross; I look at him as I get up and he’s just staring into space. Doesn’t clock me at all.
There was still something else about him that was really weird, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I was on the escalator that I got it – he wasn’t holding on to anything. It’s not a smooth ride on the tube, right? You have to hold onto something. He’d just been standing upright, with empty seats all around him. It would be really hard for anyone to keep their balance. This guy was past pension age.
It was very strange. But just that – at the time. I caught the train back to St Albans and then drove back to ours and sort of forgot about it. I got home just before 9 o’clock. Milly was fast asleep in the living room. That got me out of explaining why I was late, but we didn’t get to talk much before Cleo was up and crying.
Milly went straight into mummy mode. It was a simple nappy change, so we at least knew why she was crying. I had to make us both dinner. It was just sausages and chips. I would’ve been tempted to get a takeaway, but we’d been doing it a lot and I was starting to put on weight. We hardly had any food in the house; we were running on what was left in the freezer.
Cleo was not a quiet baby. She had bad colic. She woke up five times that night. At 5 am she just screamed and screamed; Milly got up and took her out of the bedroom.
We thought we’d been lucky; she was pretty quiet for the first few weeks. They call that the fourth trimester. When they still don’t understand they’re out of the womb.
At least I wasn’t working the next morning. We were going to see the nurse for some injections, but also for Milly’s piece of mind. When Cleo first started to cry uncontrollably, Milly thought it was something serious. Cleo had never cried like this before. Her face was bright red, she was stretching out, arching her back like she was having a fit. It was horrible. Milly was on the phone with the doctors. It got quite nasty; she didn’t believe them when they said it wasn’t unusual.
That was a couple of weeks ago, and the awful crying was still going on. But Cleo was pretty peaceful when we got to see the nurse. She asks us a whole list of questions and we talk symptoms. She say’s there’s nothing really wrong. Baby’s just going through a phase. It will get better in time.
“How much time?” says Milly. “How long will this go on?”
She’s asking out of desperation. She sounds like she’s at the end of her tether. The nurse says soon. It usually only lasts a week or two. It’s been two already, but she has no other symptoms. Cleo gets her injections, and starts screaming again. Milly looks so hopeless. Even the nurse says she’s a loud baby.
The nurse gives us all the same advice we’ve had already, and we leave the surgery with nothing we didn’t know when we came in. We’ve just got to hold out for longer.
As we walk through the reception, I spot an old man waiting in line. I swear it’s the same one from the day before. Same dirty overcoat and blank stare. I think it’s him, but I don’t have time to check; I have to keep up so I can help them in the car and drive them home.
We hoped our parents would help more. But Milly’s parents are quite old – she doesn’t want to leave Cleo with them while she’s this demanding. We could leave her with my mum but she’s quite far away. We’d have to make a trip out of it. And we just don’t have the energy.
I have to go back to work in the afternoon. Milly’s annoyed about it, but it was hard to get any time off this close to phase 2 launch. I feel so bad for her. She wants to be the perfect mum and I don’t think she really thought about how tough things were going to be
As I head back into London, I think about her friends. They’re supposed to be taking her out soon, but they haven’t put any plans together yet. I send one of them a text, to give them a nudge, and ask her to organise something.
I haven’t really got much experience of people management. I wasn’t given any training when I was promoted. Sessions were put in the diary, but they were weeks away. I was expected to just figure things out myself before then.
I wasn’t really prepared for members of my team to start kicking off. It just starts with some banter. One guy is a Man City fan, the other is a Man U fan. One talks too much, the other is a bit sensitive.
Reggie – the City fan – also doesn’t know when to stop. When he sees Huz getting annoyed, he doesn’t see that as a sign quit; he has to keep pressing his buttons. And Huz is one of those people who doesn’t have great people skills.
I should’ve stepped in earlier; I did try to change the subject. Reggie is trying to make out Huz only likes Man U because only people who don’t know anything about football like Man U. And then it gets a bit personal. Huz is a vegan, Reggie starts making out he’s a wuss. Huz doesn’t like that; he shouts at Reggie, and I have to step in.
I take them both out of the office and get them into a meeting room. I give them both a bollocking. I make them promise me they won’t have to be separated and can work together. We go back to the office, where everyone is pretending not to be tuned in to what’s going on. It’s really awkward.
I thought I’d done ok with the whole thing. Then later, my boss’s boss makes sure to bump into me when I’m getting a coffee. She has some advice on how to better handle these kinds of situations. I try not to get defensive about it. But I can tell she’s telling me off without actually telling me off: I’m not criticising you, but what you should’ve done is this, this and this…
I ended up feeling like an idiot. So I admit I was a bit pissed off when I went home. The last thing I needed was Milly kicking off.
Her friends have been in touch, and they mentioned that I’d been in touch with them. So she’s angry with me, because she thinks I told them that she was having problems and couldn’t cope. Which isn’t what I said. I was trying to do something nice for her and get her out of the house.
We get in a big row, with her telling me that I’m being really patronising. That she’ll go out with her friends when she wants to. And that I don’t think she can handle things. But I also don’t help enough.
When I do try to help, she just bites my head off anyway. I have to avoid the H word. Milly was being extra sensitive and mentioning her ‘hormones’ would make it worse. But she must’ve known she was over-reacting. Going off on one with no good reason. She’s says I don’t help but why does she think I got in touch with her friends in the first place?
I mean, why wouldn’t she want to go out for the evening? I’d like to go out with my mates, but I’m working all hours to make sure we’ve got money so we can go out if we want to.
It’s really hard having a blazing row without raising your voice. We just about pulled it off
Anyway, she hadn’t even been out to do the shopping still. And she’d been home all day. I know baby’s being difficult, but seriously. I had to get frozen pizza from the corner shop.
Now Milly’s complaining that she feels pressured to go out. She didn’t have to. But now she doesn’t want to hurt her friends’ feelings. I said fine, do what you want. Go out or don’t go. I’ll look after Cleo if you do, that’s a given.
So in the end, her friends take her out for dinner. I get Cleo for the night, and she’s perfectly fine with me. She drunk her bottle too fast, and then got grumpy with all the wind. But that’s normal. I burped her, rocked her to sleep. No trouble at all.
I thought Milly would take the chance to stay out late. But she was back early. She said she had a good time, but it didn’t look like it. She couldn’t have a drink though. At the time, she couldn’t even have a milkshake; they thought the colic might be a dairy allergy.
When I told her Cleo had been really good, she looked pretty pissed off.
Milly wasn’t much fun to be around. At least Cleo seemed to be getting better. She only woke up a couple of times each night over the weekend. Only threw big tantrums during the day.
Milly had found once that driving her around the block in the car seemed to knock her off to sleep; so I got to drive her round in circles a few times, which started to make me feel sleepy too. It worked for a few days, but after that it’s like she cottoned on to what we were doing and it stopped working.
I finally get the shopping done on Saturday. I was pretty tired over the weekend. Milly gets to complain she’s tired all the time; I don’t get to complain that I’m exhausted, even though I’m at the office all week and actually have to leave the house.
I wanted to take them out on Sunday, but the weather was too bad. Instead I tried to cheer things up with some board games. Cleo kept waking up though, and Milly couldn’t remember the rules. So it was a total wash-out. I cooked a nice dinner for us and she seemed to like that. I got one thing right at least.
I kept trying to motivate her to do something for herself. She used do crafts and sell things online. She’d knit these little cuddly animal creatures. She wanted to try and make a business out of it. Set up an Etsy shop. Make them for babies with squeakers and bells and so on. I was trying to talk to her to see if she’d done anything about it. Sitting around all day picking up after baby wasn’t making her very happy. She got defensive pretty quickly. Said I didn’t understand looking after Cleo was a full-time job.
I was just trying to get her to do something that might make her happy. I decided to just stick to the cooking until she stopped being so moody.
My team at work might be arguing all the time too, but at least there was some banter. We had a good laugh a lot of the time. Tough times can bring people together.
I started not to mind the late hours. Even with all the systems issues, I could talk to the team and vent at IT without treading on eggshells or saying the wrong thing. Or getting a look and being told it was ‘nothing’, when it was obviously something.
As we got close to phase 2 launch, my boss Dan swore to us that he was putting pressure on IT about all the systems’ downtime. With the test site offline so much, we were flying blind. We didn’t know if what we were doing was going to show up wrong or right. And when the site was up again, we’d have to do all the testing back-to-back, which makes it so easy to miss mistakes.
Having a nap on the train home might be the only peaceful sleep I got all day. It gave me a bit of energy back to make the drive home at the end of the journey. I knew we were moving too far out of London when we bought the place. I shouldn’t have agreed to it.
I love Cleo and I don’t regret having her. It’s not her fault. But we could’ve waited. We didn’t need to rush into it. We could’ve waited till we had some more money and we’d settled down a bit. Then it wouldn’t have been so bad.
Because I was feeling so tired and I knew I would have to do a lot of hours before the launch, I just asked straight up if I could sleep in the spare room for a few nights. I knew Milly wouldn’t like it, and I dreaded her getting in a mood over it.
She said ‘fine’. As her huffs go, it wasn’t bad at all. Perhaps she knew it was the right thing to do. Even though we’d had a good couple of nights recently, Cleo had relapsed back into waking up a lot. The night before she had a crying fit that lasted an hour, at full volume. When I left the next morning, I saw the look on some of the neighbours’ faces; I don’t think it was my imagination that they were looking pretty annoyed.
The day before launch, all the managers had a progress meeting. I gave my update and, despite everything, my team were basically on target. We’d done a really good job. We’d put in the extra time and we were close to where we needed to be.
Dan was happy with things, although he was definitely stressed. He’d been pressured into these targets; he wasn’t that confident we’d hit them. Even though things were going ok, he was edgy. He was making lots of effort to be upbeat and positive, but wasn’t very convincing.
I was talking to him in the elevator. He was asking about the baby and I was wondering whether to broach the subject of working at home. It didn’t seem like a good time, but it never was. I’d brought it up loads of times in our 1-2-1s and he’d said maybe I could do a day, maybe two, some weeks. But with my team being new, me being a new manager, and all the issues with systems, it wasn’t the right time he said. He kept saying we’d see. Which meant probably never.
He got off on the second floor unexpectedly, saying he needed to get to another meeting. I watched him go. When I turned my head back, the old man was standing in front of me.
I hadn’t seen him there. I knew someone else was in the elevator. But why him? Where had he even come from?
He was right up in my face. Standing inches from me. His cold dead eyes staring into mine. I didn’t know what to say or do. I was frozen to the spot.
A trickle of blood fell from his nose. I watched it trail over his lips and down his chin. He didn’t move or say a word.
When I heard the elevator doors open, I basically jumped out. On the landing, I was gasping for air; I’d been holding my breath in without knowing it. I was terrified but I didn’t know why.
I spent the rest of the day tense and feeling a bit sick. There was just no reason for that weird guy to be there. He had literally not moved an inch. If he’d been breathing, I couldn’t tell. The blood just ran, and he didn’t even react. I wondered if I was cracking up.
I had to just get on with things. All was set for launch; I told Milly about it all when I got home and she was impressed by how I’d lined things all up and got my team running smoothly.
I didn’t mention the old man. I’d thought a lot about how to explain it. But when I played it back, it wasn’t as weird or strange as it probably seemed. I just thought about what would happen if I said all this to someone and what they’d say back to me. Like, maybe it was just a coincidence, or was I sure it was the same man? We have some funny folk who work in facilities. Perhaps he worked in the building; it would make sense of why I’d seen him on the train. Although why did he look so mental at work? It was so bizarre.
Even in the spare room, Cleo’s tantrums kept me awake. I felt like dog shit all the way into work. But for all the pressure and the potential for fuck-ups, we got everything live almost bang on time. The test site held out. We got all the major errors fixed. The landing pages looked good. It all just worked, for once. I got something right.
It all went so well I managed to sneak out for a drink after work with some of the guys. Ended up making it two before I had to head back. I remember taking some mints on the way just in case Milly smelt alcohol on my breath.
She was really glad for me when I told her how well it had gone. The minor issue clean-up the next day went well too. We finished the error log and I took the team out for lunch. I had to put it on my credit card. Dan swore he’d get me the money back.
I arranged a date night for us that Friday. We dropped baby off at Milly’s parents; we figured they could manage for just a couple of hours, even if Cleo was at her worst. We went out for dinner and then we went to see the new Marvel movie.
We both fell asleep and missed the end. Cleo was asleep too when we picked her up, but awake by the time we got home
I was hoping this was going to be the night. Me and Milly hadn’t really been together in months. I wasn’t sure whether it was the exhaustion or she just didn’t feel she was physically ready. It was another subject that was just off limits. If she wanted it, she wasn’t really inviting it.
Things were smoother the next week at work. With some of the heat off for the next phase, I didn’t have to work late. But I had no reason to rush home either. I started to slip off to the gym after work. I kept my kit at the office; I was going to sneak it home on Friday and hide it in my other washing.
But Milly started asking why I was working late still. I said it wasn’t over yet; there was still phase 3, which was true. She asked how long this was going to go on? I pointed out that I’d been home earlier every night this week, so what was she complaining about? I wasn’t working for the fun of it. She did agree to me taking this promotion. God, it was driving me crazy. What did she want from me? Nothing I could do was good enough.
I kept on sleeping in the spare room. She didn’t say anything about it, so I assumed it must be fine. And she wasn’t that up for being close to me anyway.
I didn’t bring up working from home during my next 1-2-1 because it was cut to half-hour and Dan was going on about all this other stuff. And what did Milly even want me home for if she was only going to moan?
Dan said he needed to present back to the business on Friday, and he wanted me to present a few slides on the project’s implementation and the challenges I’d faced in my team.
It was a really good opportunity to get myself in front of the senior players and make an impression. But it was going to be a ton of work. I’d have to get all the slides ready while still doing all the prep work for phase 3.
I started to go home on time, but I was working on my slides in the evening. I explained this to Milly and how important this was for me. She said “Well at least you’ll be here for a change”. I asked her what that was supposed to mean, and she said it was like I was always trying to avoid spending time with her.
After all the fuss about me working from home; I start to work from home and now it’s a problem. We end up having a row about nothing. Time I could’ve spent working.
She said she was going to call up my friends and ask them to take me out because I need to relax and get out more. Bitch.
It was all downhill from there. I was trying to do a piece on my leadership of the team, but then my team all goes to shit. Those two pricks who can’t get on actually have a proper fist fight. Huz had decided that Reggie was picking on him because he was a racist. Huz reports him to HR. Reggie finds out and the two literally end up in a punch up in the corridor. I didn’t know about any of this until I see people trying to separate them.
HR still had Dan listed as their line manager, not me. So I hadn’t heard anything about the complaint because Dan is suddenly taking a few days off. Which was nice for him I bet.
I don’t know how to handle shit like this, so Dan’s boss steps in and sends them both home. Their contracts are terminated, which solves one problem. But it leaves me two heads short and looking like I can’t handle things.
And if that wasn’t messed up enough, I get in a couple of days later and get told another member of my team has been dismissed. You won’t believe why: he’d been caught jacking off in the toilets and live-streaming it. He was uploading the video to a porn site for subscribers.
I mean what the fuck? Are we paying these kids so badly they have to do porn to pay the rent? There was like a whole series of videos of him jerking off in public places. One of my team tried to send me a link to them. I had to fucking tell him: ‘Don’t go sending that shit around. Do you want to get fired too?’
Milly’s hardly talking to me. And that’s ok, because I’ve got to figure out how to do a presentation about teamwork and leadership in the same week that I had to fire three of my team. There’s no way that the people who’ll be in that room won’t know what’s happened. I know people are talking about it.
I decide I’m going to broaden things out and talk about the other micro-teams. Take some of the focus off mine. I get input from the other managers about the strategies they’ve used to paint a bigger picture of the project. The whole thing came off because all the teams pulled together.
I work past midnight on my slides. I couldn’t sleep. I remember going to the toilet in the middle of the night and looking into the bathroom mirror. I got a glimpse of the old man staring at me. I jumped around in panic and pissed across the bathroom floor. It was just a trick of the mind. There was no one there. Christ, I really was losing it.
When I got back to bed, Cleo started crying. There was just no fucking escape.
Jacked up on Red Bull and sweating like a pig, I go up there in front of the leadership and make my big speech. And against all the odds, I don’t fuck the whole thing up. I don’t get that look that you sometimes get from high-ups, when they think you’re wasting their time and look at you like you’re something they just stepped in. They actually seemed interested.
I even dared – last minute – to make a gag about all the leavers. It was something like “We’ve had a few people come and go. And with one person, that’s literally true.” That got a really good laugh.
I got through it in a mad, sweaty haze and got a strong round of applause. Afterwards, Dan was well chuffed, hadn’t seen him so happy in ages. Probably just totally relieved. He’s been under lots of pressure too. The whole situation had been getting to all of us.
As the presentation was in the morning, me and the other team managers went out for lunch. Dan bought us all a round. That turned into another round. And then between us we just decided for this one afternoon, they could manage without us. We had our phones and could see our emails. If they needed us, they could just let us know. We’d done a fucking good few months work. Today, we were going to have some drinks, and relax. Dan okayed it – after a couple – and he’s in charge. So that’s how it was. Team bonding. It was good for us. We were actually having some fun.
Because we were having such a good laugh, we lost track of time. We knew we had till home time, up to 5:30, but the rounds just kept coming in. Then I realised it was 7pm and I thought I’d better be getting back. I check my phone and see that Milly’s been calling me.
There’s like five missed calls. There’s a text too. It says: “Cleo’s temperature is over 38C. I’m taking her to the hospital. Where the fuck are you?”
I try to call her back. Her phone is off. I go running for the tube. The elevators are out of order so I have to go down the stairs. I jog down, like, 200 stairs. By the time I get to the bottom, I know I’m going to be sick. When I get on the train, I find a Burger King bag and I throw up in it. I can’t call her now; I’m on the tube.
I trip on the escalator when I’m at King’s Cross and fall down several steps. It fucks my knee up badly. It hurts like hell as I run for my train. I just about make it before the doors close. I keep trying to call Milly. But her phone is still off and the signal is shit anyway on the St Albans line.
I’m still no wiser about what’s going on when I drive back home, which hurts like hell with my knee, which is stiffening up. When I get there, I see her car is in the drive. Some serious fucking crisis if she’s home already.
I get inside and she’s spoiling for a fight: “Where the fuck have you been?”
“I’ve been trying to get back here! Your phone is off”
“The battery went while I was at the hospital. I had to take our baby to hospital. And I couldn’t find you.”
“I was at work. Where do you think I was? I didn’t hear my phone go off.”
“You weren’t at work. I know when you’re drunk. I’m here, worried our baby is sick and you’re out getting fucking pissed. And drink-driving home!”
She lashes out and, like, pushes me.
“Jesus Christ. I didn’t know this was going to happen. And as soon as I did I came running back here. Literally running back here. Look, there’s blood on my knee. I shredded my own fucking knee to get here.”
“But you’re never here, are you? You’re never here. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. You’re thinking about work and how you can brush us off.”
“What the fuck do you think I’m at work for? It’s for you. I don’t fucking do it for fun.”
“Don’t give me that. It’s always about you. If it was about us you’d be here. We want you here.”
“So you can moan at me all the time? Christ, there is nothing I can fucking do to please you.”
“It’s not about pleasing me. It’s about being present. You’ve got a family.”
“When I got your text, I came running all the way here. I’m limping now for fuck sake. Don’t tell me that I don’t care about my family. Look at the fucking state of me. And for what? She’s fine isn’t she? You’re back here already aren’t you?”
“Her temperature went down. It was a false alarm.”
“It was all nothing. You panicked and it was all nothing.”
“No it wasn’t nothing. How do I know if it’s nothing unless I go to check?”
“You see this, this is the real problem. You just want someone to beat up on. You want to make me a punching bag for everything because you’re so miserable.”
“I just want you to support me,” she was doing the crying thing now.
“Except whenever I actually try to help or do something, all you do is complain. Nothing I can do is good enough.”
“You don’t want to help, you just want it to look like you’re trying to help. You want a pat on the back for everything. It’s like ‘look at me, I’m doing something’ and if I’m not looking at you, you can’t be bothered. This is real. This is our child. Half of the time you look like you want to be somewhere else. And the rest of the time you are somewhere else.”
Our row had gone up to full volume. Cleo was awake and crying.
“I’ll go,” I said.
“No, you’re drunk.”
“You said you wanted me to help. Well, I’m here and I am helping.”
I went to Cleo in her cot and unbuckled her while Milly watched me. I held baby up to my chest, rocked her a little, calmed her down. Made baby sounds to her while inside I’m fucking raging.
After watching me for a few minutes, Milly says she probably needs feeding. It seemed late, but whatever. Without saying anything else, I hand her over and leave them to it.
I was starving and there was no fucking food in the house again. I shouted to Milly I was ordering pizza and did she want anything? She said she didn’t care, so fine. I ordered an extra large, left her a few slices, should she choose to have them.
I watched football highlights, had a few more beers. I was sure I could hear crying – and not from Cleo – but I wasn’t going to let it get to me. The week I’d had. And I was supposed to feel sorry for her. My knee really fucking hurt.
I fell asleep on the sofa. I woke up in the early hours; I’d been dribbling on the cushions. The TV had turned itself off and it was all quiet in the house. I stood up and put my foot in the leftover pizza.
The patio curtains were open. I saw him standing there in the garden. It was a clear night; he looked so white. There were no excuses for it this time. There was no sane way he could be in my garden. No rational explanation.
I pulled open the door and walked onto the grass. I went slowly up to him. He never flinched. He was there like a statue. I waved my hand in front of his eyes and he stayed still.
“Who are you?” I asked quietly, in case someone was watching. “What do you want?” I knew he wouldn’t answer. He didn’t see me. He was oblivious to the world.
I walked all the way around him. He seemed real. He was three-dimensional. I stood looking him in the eyes again, watching for any sign of life.
Slowly, I reached out, to touch him.
“Steve, what are you doing?” Milly made me jump. She was shouting at me from the living room.
I pulled my hand back like I’d been caught doing something naughty. I looked at her and then back again. The old man was still there.
I went slowly to the patio door, looking back to see if he moved, or if he’d vanish now that Milly was looking at him. But Milly couldn’t see him. She didn’t ask: “Who the fuck’s the weird old man?” She asked: “What are you doing outside? You’re letting the heat out.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing and went back inside, put my foot in the pizza again, and went up to my bedroom.
I fell asleep, eventually, but I spent so much time wondering whether, if I went to the window, I’d still see him in the garden. I just didn’t want to look.
I was wrecked and hungover the next morning. When I got to the kitchen, it was as if Milly was waiting for me. She had just put Cleo in her chair. Cleo had just learnt how to smile. She was grinning at me.
“We need to talk,” said Milly.
“Do we have to do it now?”
“It can’t wait,” she said.
“So you’re going to moan at me again.”
“This can’t go on.”
I rolled my eyes and went over to the fridge for something to drink.
“You’re in a fucking mess. You look terrible.”
“It’s not about your looks. It’s everything. Your whole mood. Your attitude.”
“You’re a parent now.”
I sit by the kitchen table and start to laugh. “You keep saying that like I don’t know. Like I’m not rushing around, and working my fingers to the bone, trying to provide for my family.”
“I want you to quit your job.”
“You get too wrapped up in it. It’s like it’s all you think about. You think you can just park us to the side and check in to see if we’re ok all the time.”
“I’m so sick of this.”
“You’re sick of this?” She sat in the chair on the opposite side of the table. “You’re right about one thing. I am miserable. I’m fucking miserable being stuck at home all day, sleeping when I can, waiting for the next nappy change. Here all day. With nothing else to do.
“It’s hard work and I’m depressed. I know this happens after pregnancy and it’ll get better, but right now I feel so tired and sad that I just want to crawl under our bed and hide in the dark all day. But I know I can’t because we have a little girl who needs us.”
God, my head hurt. I was so sick of her complaining.
“You treat us like we’re in the background. How many times have you been out for drinks after work when you said you were working late?”
“I haven’t been going out drinking.”
“Except last night.”
“We were celebrating the presentation. Which I did really well, thanks for asking.”
“Well good for you. I spent yesterday with a crying baby, dashing to the hospital to make sure she wasn’t sick. But there was no one there to give me a round of applause or a pat on the back. So I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
I might have lost it just then if Cleo hadn’t started to cry. Instead I got up and went for my jacket.
“Running away from us now?” she said.
“No, I’m going to the shops because there’s no food in the house again. Your useless, doesn’t-do-anything husband is going to make sure there’s food and nappies and other things in the house. But you’re right – I can’t stand to be here right now.”
I opened the front door.
“Well go then. Again. But you’re going to have to decide. You can’t keep doing this. If you want to be here with us, be here with us, don’t go pretending like—”
I slammed the door. I couldn’t bear to listen to her go on any longer. Fucking drama queen.
I got in my car with my head pounding. She had no fucking idea how hard I was working for them. What I was trying to do to build a future and a safe home for the both of them. And this is how she treats me. I felt like I was going to fucking cry.
I rested my head on the steering wheel, before I started up the ignition and pulled off. I didn’t even know what I was supposed be getting at the supermarket. I started to roll off a list in my head as I drove along. But I couldn’t get past the fucking argument.
She honestly thought I didn’t care about the work she put in. I know how hard it’s been with that kid crying and shrieking. I’ve done my best to help. But she doesn’t want helping, and then says I don’t help enough.
It’s not like I’m not miserable too. Late nights, long journeys. Don’t I get to be unhappy? Do I have to be fucking happy for them? She doesn’t even leave the house to do the shopping. I have to do all this work, and I get so tired, and it doesn’t matter because she’s the one having a rough time. My feelings don’t count.
She says I’m not present, but she doesn’t care about how I feel at all. Drives me fucking away then tells me I’m not there for her. All these things I’ve done, I’ve done because I want the best for them, for her.
If all this wasn’t good enough for them, what else could I give them? My head is pounding, there are sacks under my eyes, stabbing pains in my knee – what else was I going to give? What else was ever going to be enough for her?
I couldn’t just chuck in my job. The hours that I’ve spent there. I’ve only been a manager for like two months. I couldn’t quit now. Where would that leave me? I don’t want to be a failure. How’s that going to help us? We can’t get by on her maternity. What does she think she’s going to do without me?
There was a crash. My windscreen shattered. I slammed my foot on the brake as my head flew forward. I saw two eyes staring at me through the glass.
My car screeched to a stop. The body slid off the bonnet. I fell back into my seat.
I sat still for a second in my seat shaking. I undid the seatbelt and got out. I walked into the street, just as people were starting to appear from all over. They were running to see if he was all right.
He lay in the road, staring up into the sky. He wore the same clothes he always wore: the dirty mac, clothes that looked like pyjamas, flip flops. His white hair was sticking out at the sides. He had 3-day-old stubble.
People were asking if he was ok. They were saying: “Mate, can you hear us? Mate?” He said nothing back to them. He just stared up into the sky. Like they weren’t even there.
Someone was calling an ambulance. Someone else asked me what had happened. And I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say anything. I just stared at him. Watched while a trickle of blood fell from his nose and ran down his cheek.
I had to watch while people, who didn’t know what they were doing, tried to decide whether to try and resuscitate him or not. They didn’t think he was breathing, but they were afraid to do CPR because he was so old.
One got down on his knees and tried to give it a go. She pushed down on his chest, but not too hard, over and over.
The ambulance got there pretty quick. The sad spectacle didn’t last too long.
I sat myself on the curb. I could just about make out what they were saying. But I already knew that he was dead.
I could hear people telling the paramedics about me. They’d turn and shoot glances at me.
The police arrived too. The old man was on a stretcher now, ready to be taken away. The paramedics updated them on his condition.
I looked down the road, towards our house. I saw the police walking over to me.
I’d worked so hard. Tried so hard. I’d tried to do the right thing for myself and for my family. I’d tried to make everything work. I thought it would be all right in the end. And now I was going to lose everything.
I rolled over onto the pavement. I couldn’t stop crying.