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“Such a gorgeous day”, his mother would have said. “The Heath is such a treasure.”
“Son, sun. What’s the difference? Sun, son, sun, son, sun, son… What’s the difference, dad?” his five-year old son had asked the other day.
“All these layabouts!” He imagines his boss making a sweeping gesture towards the crowded lawn. “And on a working day, Christ. I break my back so they can have their bloody picnics.”
“Come here. Touch this tree,” his friend Sam had said, years ago. Their hands pressed against the bark. “So beautiful. We mustn’t forget these things.”
“You’re calling in sick? Today? Just like that?” This morning, over the phone, his boss had at first sounded incredulous. Then: “Well you can talk, can’t you? You’re well enough to pick up the fucking phone?” he’d shouted.
His colleagues would have pointed to the skyline. “Look, you can see the office from here.”
“Truly astonishing, the things we can build,” his mother is fond of saying. Over the years, she had shaken her head in disbelief at each new tower the City had sprouted.
“Dear boy,” the old secretary had called at him as he was leaving their partners’ headquarters last week, “sign out, will you? I’m the one who has to prove that any of you coming in aren’t left lurking in the cupboards.”
“I’m gonna make the world’s biggest kite and fly off the roof of the old beer factory!” his classmate Billy had lied.
“Well, now, just look at those colours!” his English teacher had said on a class outing to the Heath. “Mouth watering! I’d like to gobble it all up. If only one were a cow. Chunk after chunk of perfect green hills until BOOM: you lot stand pimple-deep in happily exploded Brobdingnagian bovine. What… an…. exit.”
“Cows are colour-blind,” his biology teacher had insisted.
“Five-storey fire as you came, love…” the little black radio croaks on a blanket next to a slumbering couple.
“You’re a very good kisser. There’s no way I’d be with anyone who’s not a good kisser,” his first girlfriend had said close to this very spot, and then went on to kiss him lasciviously, ridiculously, smearing a strawberry-smelling kiss over half his face. “See? You wanna die,” she said afterwards.
“I can’t believe you don’t feel it,” his friend Sam would have said. “God is in every one of these things. Why did you smile looking at the swans by the pond? Who made you smile?”
“It’s not cold, it’s invigorating,” his grandfather had said as they were swimming in the pond, the old man’s breaststrokes sending icy ripples his way. “Stop complaining.”
“Dad, can we come and swim here? Can we?” his son had asked the last time they were here.
“vrrrrrRRRMMMM,” a jet plane engine roars. He looks up. He can only see one airplane, but so many vapour trails streak the clear-blue sky, it’s scarred like a skating rink. Ice dancers to London Luton.
“The majority of figure skaters jump counter-clockwise,” he remembers a winter sports commentator saying.
“Emily! You can share that. Emily!” a woman shouts to a small girl who is clasping a bag of sweets and tottering away from an even smaller boy.
“They tend to spin counter-clockwise too,” the commentator had added. “This, for instance, is a counter-clockwise death spiral.” Oh no it’s not, he is sure he had thought, even then.
“That’s not a dog,” his brother would have said. “It’s a furred gnat. But his mommy, on the other hand…”
“She walks in beauty and we stumble behind,” his English teacher had sighed, looking through the classroom window.
“A woman who dresses like that is asking for trouble,” his mother would have said.
“Take a good look, because that’s all you’ll be doing,” his father had teased him, ages ago. “Hah! Of course you were looking.”
“That’s them playing, love! No need to worry,” the Staffie’s owner says when his dog starts chasing the woman’s Chihuahua. “Bastard! Bastard!” he then seems to shout. No, it’s “Buster! Buster!”
“It’s the right thing to do,” his grandfather would have said, frowning at him. “Do you want to be one of those milksops?”
“You’re alright, yeah? It’s just a flesh wound,” the woman says, walking away with the Chihuahua in her arms.
Flesh wound, the dictionary app reads. A wound that does not damage bones or vital organs.
“What I don’t understand is how that was any of your business,” his father would have said.
“Life isn’t fair,” Sam had once tried to console him. “But that’s not the point.”
“It’s noon, dear,” his mother would have fretted. “It’s bad for you to lie in the sun. And we absolutely must call the doctor about that hand. I’m sure they’ll see you immediately.”
“We don’t want to see it! You know we hate blood,” his wife had said the last time he had injured himself, turning away and shielding their boy. His son had been crying; the quiet, shy cry that strangers confused with a hiccup.
“Ah, excuse us, young man, but do you need any help?” He opens his eyes and sees two sun-spotted figures with backpacks and halos of white hair, two shadow-play angels. They lean precariously over him.
“What do you think he meant, that it’s not our fault?” the old woman says as the couple wobble out of his sky and continue up the hill.
“Krah, krah,” the crows say, leaving the lawn for a tree, up and away from an eager toffee-coated cocker spaniel. “Krah, krah, krah,” filling the branches with themselves. Plump, shiny doomsday fruit. He feels their eyes on him when at last he gets up and passes under their tree, and at home, hours and hours later, the eyes are still on him, pinning him to his bed.
“Must have been the stress,” they whisper, scattering onto the sunny green; the black-clad men and women who for hours have suffered in the heat and now allow themselves to loosen ties and collars. “They’re under a lot of pressure, these City firms.”