It’s a celebration in the pub. Celebration because he’s been released out of prison. The beer is flowing freely, smiles on everyone’s faces. People who have never cared for him. People he doesn’t care for.
There is Paddy, rising a glass, smiling. There is Chas, who has always hated him from the bottom of her heart. They laugh, make toasts. Wendy, so happy to see him behind bars once. Has changed her melody since then.
Diane and Rodney, drunk, the pair of them. Laughing hysterically at some bad joke. Jimmy and Nicola, nodding at him. Victoria, a smile on her lips. Leyla, David, Cain, Lydia, Sam, Moira, Charity, Liam, some guy he doesn’t recognise, Gabby and Harriet, all their faces blur into one.
Robert lowers his eyes, not sure how long he’ll be able to stand it. The cheers, the laughter, the false smiles. They all are only looking for an occasion to get drunk, it doesn’t matter if it’s him being a free man at last or Sam’s pig winning some contest.
It’s the same as always, nothing will ever change in the village.
Half of them hates him. The other half doesn’t really care.
Why are they even here? Why is he even here?
It was a bad idea coming along.
Aaron squeezes his shoulder encouragingly, but he’s not really there either. His eyes glossed over, his breath smelling of beer. Robert can’t stand it.
He feels like he needs to run.
He needs to run.
Yet, he is rooted in his place, unable to move.
The glass in is hand is slowly sliding down onto the dirty pub floor.
He watches it crash into a thousand small pieces. In pure consternation, not remembering holding it at all.
The noise it makes disappears among the chatter. No one notices. Robert realises no one notices him anymore either. He’s amongst at least fifty people yet he’s standing in the pub all alone.
Soon, someone walks over the spilled beer and shattered glass, kicking the remains around.
Aaron smiles at him.
Robert needs to run.
He takes a step forward, but all the energy has suddenly left him. Getting to the door feels like a task too hard to execute. He needs help but there is no one to ask.
Time stops and he’s floating in a limbo. The sounds, the smells, all fading away. He’s lightheaded and not sure if he can keep himself from fainting.
Slowly, he glances at Aaron again. Blue eyes meeting green and then something clicks.
‘You’re not alright’ Aaron just states, suddenly sobered up.
Robert shakes his head. He’s used to being told what to do. He needs to be told to move. Can Aaron see this?
‘Let’s get some fresh air.’
Robert feels his hand being taken hold of and follows Aaron to the door. He’s never been more relieved.
The air outside is crisp, the wind cooling off his face. Aaron’s eyes show worry, worry beyond words.
‘We can stay here if you want. Just nod if that’s okay.’
How is it possible to know another person on that level?
‘I know. It’s okay, I know.’
Robert feels he could stay outside forever.
‘We don’t even have to be here. Let’s just take a walk, alright? To clear your head?’
The streets are empty. The air is cold, Robert shudders but Aaron offers him his own jacket.
The bile in his throat rises.
They walk in silence. Stars and moon are illuminating the sky, it’s a clear autumn night.
It was autumn when he went in, it’s autumn when he’s out. Four years. Four autumns inside. When he thought his heart would shatter in thousand pieces. Every night. Bedsheets soaking up his tears every night. Hugging himself before falling asleep every night.
Now he’s got Aaron to hug him once again.
Why isn’t he happy then? Why can’t he be bloody happy?! What is wrong with him?! He’s got everything he’s longed for all these months, and he can’t even appreciate it.
He thought this was coming home but he feels like a stranger. He doesn’t belong here, he belongs in prison where he knows what to do, where there are no surprise welcome parties, where he knows every face, where he is not allowed to do anything wrong.
Aaron squeezes his hand harder, and Robert feels like he is suffocating in the clear air. His feet are not working any longer, he can’t make them work.
‘Robert?’ Aaron’s worried eyes scan his face.
‘I can’t.’ There are the first words he has uttered since leaving the pub. The nausea is creeping up on him. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.
‘You want to…?’ Aaron starts, but Robert doubles over and is violently sick.
Again, and again. Until there is nothing left.
Robert wonders if there is anything left of him.
The real him, is there anything left of him? After four years? Has the prison erased him? Moulded him into someone else?
He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know and it scares the shit out of him. Because how do you rebuild yourself if someone has stolen all the bricks?
He’s not Robert anymore. He wants desperately to become Robert. But he doesn’t know how.
‘We could go home?’ Aaron is running out of options. Soon he will give up, he had a life before Robert came back. Everything was falling into place and now he’s stuck, drawn into Robert’s misery.
“Home” is a place owned by Aaron. Robert’s stuff finally cleared out a year ago. “Home” is no home for Robert.
How ungrateful he is! Someone will soon see right through him. Someone will tell Aaron to let go of Robert and Aaron would let go. Going back to living his life.
Why had he even come back?
‘Robert, you’re scaring me. I know what you’re going through, I know it’s hard but please, say something.’
Nice words, polite words. He’s not worthy of them.
Why can’t he just be happy? Say he’s alright and go back to the pub to drink his head off?
He realises he’s sitting on the cold ground. He doesn’t remember sitting down. Aaron is sitting beside him, his hand running circles on Robert’s back.
‘Just tell me what I can do to help you. I want to help; I hate seeing you like this.’
Suddenly, the words are there, and once Robert has opened his mouth he can’t stop talking. It’s like a never-ending river, flowing with the full strength once released.
‘I’m sorry, I thought it was a good idea coming back, I thought… I hoped we could pick up where’d we left of, but it was selfish, so selfish, I should never have come back. I can’t ask of you to play happy family with me when it’s not alright, what I did was not alright, hitting Lee, cutting you off, cutting Vic off, I had no right. I let everyone down, once again, and you’ve got no guarantee that I won’t do it in the future once more. You thought you knew me, and I thought I knew myself but look at me! Look at me, Aaron, I don’t even know who I am any longer! I don’t know which part is mine to play! I couldn’t be without you in prison, I prayed every day to some divine force to reunite us, to wake up from this terrible dream, but once we’re together I can’t even feel anything! I should be so grateful now, I’ve got my life back, but just look at me! I can’t. I can’t. All I want to do is run until I can’t run no more. But I know that’s all I do; every time life gets tougher. I run. I hope someone would anchor me down but in the end I run anyway. And I’m so tired, I’m so tired of running, but I don’t know what to do instead.’
Snotty nose and tears are running down his cheeks as Aaron is holding him in a strong embrace. Robert tries to free himself, but the younger man won’t let go.
‘Don’t you ever doubt that I love you’ Aaron is saying through his own tears. ‘Don’t you ever doubt that I want you here. That I want to be here with you.’
Robert wants to believe. He needs to believe.
But he can’t.
He shakes Aaron off and gets up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I can’t drag you down once more. I always drag you down with me.’
‘Messed up together, remember?’ Aaron is desperate now. You can’t build a relationship on desperation.
‘I’m too messed up, even for you.’
Help me, he wants to scream instead.
It would be so good to go back to the familiar now.
But the familiar means he would fuck up once again. He needs to be locked away not to fuck up once again.
And yet Aaron’s eyes are full of love. Where does it come from?
Robert’s breath is hitched, he can’t fill his lungs with air.
‘I’m not a doctor,’ Aaron says softly ‘but you are having some sort of a panic attack. Prison does that to you, making you unable to cope in the real world. It’s okay, Robert. It’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to doubt yourself. I’ve been through this and trust me, it will get better. Even if it doesn’t feel like this just now. But I’m here if you want me to. I’m here and I won’t go away just because you say you want me to. I can be a stubborn bastard sometimes, too.’
Robert forces a smile.
‘One step at a time, huh? Can we just take one step at a time, Rob? Can you do that?’
Can he? Does he have a choice?
If he doesn’t, what else is there for him?
So, he lets Aaron take hold of his hand again and follows him to the Mill, step by step. He is not protesting as the younger man helps him undress and tucks him in. He closes his eyes as Aaron is placing a kiss on his forehead and closes the door to the bedroom.
Maybe when he wakes up the world will be a more bearable place. Maybe all he needs to do is to hope.
Robert closes his eyes and dares to hope.