Actions

Work Header

Ashes

Work Text:

Sun. That’s the first thing that hits him when he steps outside. He squints at its brightness, holding up a hand to shield himself. Despite the fact it’s early October, and just starting to get a little colder – crisp, as they’d say – the sun’s still shining and the sky seems clearer and bluer than he’s ever seen it when they’ve been out for recreation. He’s carrying everything he owns in a telltale plastic sack, emblazoned with HMP Bristol in royal blue lettering. He’ll keep it, he thinks, even when things are neatly stored away, his life’s on track and everything about these years is a dim memory. It’ll be a reminder of a line he’ll never cross; a place he can’t ever return to.

He takes a deep breath, really fills his lungs. His first as a free man. Instead of the excitement he’d expected to feel, like on the morning of a birthday (good birthday memories are vague) or the run up to a house party with JJ and Freddie (those memories are vaguer still, and when recalled, bring their own pain) he just feels rather empty. Turning back toward the building, he looks at the large corrugated steel gate, and then up at the barred windows, wondering if any of the boys from the wing are looking back. He strains to see, but can’t make anything out. They’re just distant figures now. Ghosts of another kind. He was told to expect this, to be prepared for it, but he’s nowhere near that. Everything inside those walls was foreign to him once, but now it’s familiar, routine: the slamming doors; clanging gates; when to go and when to stop; when to nod hellos and when to keep his eyes on the ground; when to challenge and when to stay silent.

He’ll be completely on his own for the first time in nearly five years. It terrifies him.

There’s no one to tell him what to do and when: no bars, no gates; no lights out; no waiting in the phone queue; no Deano and Smithy to swap mags and cigarettes with; no Terry, Edwards, or Mason to lock him in and let him out; no Dr Nicholls to give him his tablets; no Dr Miller to talk to.

When he looks down at himself, he still half expects to see the dark grey sweatshirt with royal blue trim, the navy trousers and the white trainers he’s worn for so long. Instead, there’s the clothes he chose; a green Army jacket, a grey hooded sweatshirt, jeans and trainers, all new, purchased on his behalf when they realised his old ones wouldn’t fit.

Cook was gone, and James was in his place.

The only certain thing he has is the letter in his pocket, detailing the conditions of his release license and the address of a local hostel. Everything else is down to fate. Any minute now, he expects someone to come out and tell him there’s been a mistake, and he’ll be hauled back inside because it’s someone else who’s meant to be released today instead of him; the victim of a paperwork mix-up or a case of mistaken identity.

There, amongst the sea of other cars in the car park, is a girl, about his age, leaning against the bonnet of a gleaming silver Mini Cooper, talking away animatedly on her phone, with her free hand stuffed into the pocket of her coat. Something about her is familiar, he knows her from somewhere, he’s sure of it. It takes another few seconds of looking, but then the indecision goes, and the flicker of recognition he’s been searching for sparks. He realises it’s not just any girl, it’s Katie. He can’t help but smile, because even though she’s changed – her hair’s dark brown now, and the mini skirts have gone along with the flashy earrings – she’s still very much Katie. That in itself is comforting.

The fact she’s here at all comes as a bit of a surprise, since she never replied to his letter, so he’d gotten used to the fact he’d have no one waiting when the gates closed behind him. He feels silly for a moment, and then awkward, because he’s not sure she’s seen him, and he doesn’t want to make a show of himself. He’s long thought of this moment; imagined Katie, imagined other people in her place too over the years – Naomi and Emily, Karen, JJ, sometimes Freddie, when he’s been at his lowest – thought about what he’ll say, what other people will say back, and he’ll explain himself to every other person he’ll ever meet in his life without clamming up or lying through his back teeth.

Katie ends her phone call, looks up at him and smiles. The flurry of words he had in his head all disappear, and he feels nothing but relief.

He crosses to meet her, cautious, squeezing the plastic bag in his hand that bit tighter to steady himself.

“Hello stranger,” she says, smiling again when he draws level with her, stepping away from her car.

“Alright?”

There’s an awkward moment where neither of them knows what to do, and they’re just standing there, looking, taking each other in anew.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, come here!” she says, exasperated, reaching up to hug him.

He drops his bag, and takes a step back, thrown for a moment by her sudden display of affection. She’s tiny, that’s his first thought, when he puts his arms carefully around her, afraid she’ll break if he squeezes too hard. She’s all perfume, shampoo, mint chewing gum. It’s been a long time since anyone’s hugged him like this and meant it.

Over her shoulder, he catches sight of an all-too familiar white prison van rounds the corner, with new prisoners inside. They emerge after a moment, cuffed. Most pass silently inside, but there’s one that he can’t help but watch; young, full of rage, he’s practically dragged from the van. He lashes out, kicking and spitting at the officers and he’s immediately pinned to the ground.

He was that boy. Once.

***

Katie’s car’s that new, it even has that new car smell, so there’s no need for one of those horrible pine scented Magic Tree air fresheners. He’d expected fluffy pink dice, or at least something pink, given that Katie Fitch was one of the girliest girls he’d ever come across, but there’s not one of those either. He sits quiet, close to the door, watching the city unfold in front of them, mentally comparing the changes as they crawl through the midday traffic.

“Changed a bit, hasn’t it?” she comments, glancing his way when they stop at the third set of lights in as many minutes.

‘A bit’ is something of an understatement. It looks like another planet. All the landmarks he had in his head are gone. Everything is new and unfamiliar, with little trace of what was left before. He knows the names of course; they’re all brands, big chain places. They’d started to creep in back when he was at college, but now they’ve taken over completely. The shops are full of that minimalist décor and the clubs have dress codes and bouncers three times his size. The pubs have wine lists and speciality beers. It could be any high street anywhere; all the clubs, pubs and shops look exactly the same. Soulless.

“I think I’ll need a fucking map!”

“You’ll be alright once you get used to it,” she looks up at the lights stuck on amber, drumming her fingertips against the steering wheel; nails perfectly painted a light-ish pink.

“You can be my tour guide, eh?”

“Course!” she laughs. “It’ll be fun,” she laughs and he realises it’s been a long time since he’s heard that from anyone.

“I’m a bit rusty on the fun,” he comments, quietly, and she glances away.

The lights go green and they’re off again.

When the inevitable lull in the conversation comes, he’s glad the radio’s there as a distraction. It’s stuck on some station he’s never heard of, but he knows the words to almost every record, since it’s mostly nineties stuff. It reminds him of being small, sitting in the front of his dad’s van, back in the days when he had a job and his brown sheepskin coat was new. They always got crisps and Panda pop from the petrol station. He was Jamie then, and his dad was his hero; Father Christmas, David Beckham and Jesus all rolled into one. He still feels like that little boy sometimes, especially today, but then, he knows too much, he’s been through too much to ever be Jamie again.

Things happen for a reason, so they say.

Freddie pops into his mind at the thought. Dr Nicholls and even Dr Miller couldn’t find a reason for that, no matter how many hours they spent talking it through. He doesn’t see his friend anymore; spliffed and bevvied, skating about the streets. Instead, he pictures the smiling face from the papers and the television news; Freddie McLair, the cherished son, the doting boyfriend, the popular student whose life was tragically cut short. Their smile is the same, but otherwise, they’re two versions of Freddie he can’t quite reconcile. He prefers it that way. It means there are still some things only he knows.

“Mind if I change the station?” he asks, already leaning forward before Katie’s answered.

“Ugh, please do. There’s only so many boybands I can take! That’s bloody Corrina!” she exclaims. “She was in here this morning …”

He lets her go on talking a little bit, because it means he doesn’t have to and he’s fine with that for now. Luckily for him, even if she’s noticed, she doesn’t seem to mind either, because she makes no mention of it. Instead, she carries on telling him about Corrina, and the others in the salon where she works; and how he can meet them at some point when he’s ready. He thinks about the others of course, Emily, Naomi, Effy, JJ and everyone else, but doesn’t ask for now, because there’s plenty of time for questions and catching up, since his contact with the outside world isn’t limited by the clock on the wall in the visitor’s room. Right now, he’s not sure if he wants to hear her answer. If they were doing well – as he imagines they are – he’d be happy of course, but like everything else that’s meant to be positive, it’s always tainted with another emotion: jealousy, guilt or just plain sadness.

This is a bittersweet homecoming. He’s always known it would be.

Picking one of the presets at random he presses it. ‘Ace of Spades’ fills the car and he wants to press another. It sets off a chain of memories in his head. Just like always, it starts well: his birthday, the party, scoffing all the cake that Emily made, gate crashing Kayleigh’s engagement. Then, there’s the inevitable twist, where things snowball and he loses sight of what’s important, like losing his cool with Johnny White, or sitting in the shed with Freddie, knowing he was right, knowing that Effy would ruin them both in one way or another. Knowing that he couldn’t possibly carry on as he was, but he did it anyway.

The first mistake of many. The reason why he can never be Cook again either.

***

“Bit swish this, innit?”

He turns in a circle, barely in the front door of Katie’s flat, taking it all in. Immediately, he takes off his trainers, because it feels right. New or not, he wanted Katie to think he’d acquired some manners if nothing else in the intervening years.

“Should be for the bloody rent they charge!” she turns, giving him a quizzical look, as if she doesn’t know who he is.

She waves him forward, and he follows obediently behind, carrying his bag in one hand, and his trainers in the other. Every now and again, he flexes his toes against the blonde hardwood floor, it’s heated.

“You don’t have to carry your stuff everywhere you know, you can put it down.”

He nods, embarrassed, and does as Katie says, albeit rather reluctantly. It’s not because he doesn’t trust her, quite the reverse in fact. It’s the fact that any minute now, he’s convinced someone will tell him this is all one very vivid dream, and any second, he’ll be woken up by Deano shoving him and asking if he can have his toast or the sound of his cell being unlocked, and he’ll be stuck in that grey little room for years more having imagined the whole thing.

She’d deliberately played it down in the car, told him it was small, but compared to what he’d imagined, it was practically palatial. Clean, light, bright and new, like the car, and a million miles away from the rundown, gratified high-rise with the broken lift that he used to live in with his mum before her paintings began to sell. It’s exactly like something out of those posh interiors magazines he’s seen in Mr Sharma’s shop, whilst he’s stood in the queue waiting to get served or in the waiting room of the doctors or the dentists, only it’s real and someone he knows, his own age has achieved enough to afford it.

The tour carries on, zigzagging around the flat, and she points things out here and there, and he listens, content, because it’s nice to hear a different voice, to hear her voice. She describes everything like an estate agent or an airhostess. First, there’s the kitchen, white apart from its shiny stainless steel cooker and multi-coloured mosaic tiles. Then, the living room, with a sofa and two chairs she claims aren’t leather, but he doesn’t believe it for a second, especially when he sets eyes on the flat screen mounted on the far wall.

He shakes his head in disbelief, feeling incredibly lucky. Katie just smiles.

Next, they step out briefly on to the balcony, and he spots a metal table and chairs, like a café. He leans against the railing. The view’s quite pretty from up here, he’s always liked being able to look out like this and just watch people come and go.

“Nice.”

“It is in summer, bit rubbish now though. I thought you could smoke out here,” she turns and then adds, “if you still do?” as if she feels guilty for assuming anything.

He nods, “Now and again.”

“Hold on,” she looks incredulous. “Nice?!” she repeats, with a playful nudge, and the snippy little ring in her voice is all too familiar, if mellowed. “Is that all you’ve got to say, Cook? I wouldn’t bring you to live in some dive, would I?”

The use of his last name, his old nickname makes him flinch.

“I didn’t mean anything, it came out wrong,” he replies, apologetic. “It’s just a lot different to what I was expecting, that’s all.”

“This is going to take getting used to.”

“What?” he turns to her, confused.

“You being considerate and …” she tails off.

“Giving a fuck?” he ends the sentence for her, with a pointed look and a barely there smile.

“Something like that,” she replies, and they just look at each other for a moment, realising the feeling’s mutual. “Come on, it’s freezing!” she says, with a shudder, and ushers him inside.

The bathroom’s next, with a bath and separate shower, aqua-coloured fluffy towels. He smiles when he sees a pink duck in sunglasses amongst all the candles and the toiletries spread about. Classic Katie.

“And, this is you,” she says, opening the door with a flourish. “I decorated. Well, me, James and my dad. I didn’t think raspberry red was very you,” she adds, with a smirk, leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded.

It could’ve been acid yellow for all he cared. If he’s honest, he expected a box room and not much else, and even then, he wouldn’t have complained. Firstly, he’s in no position to be picky, and secondly, he’s rather gotten used to living in confined spaces.

“Katie… this …” he struggles a bit to find the proper words, but there aren’t any.

He sinks down on to the double bed, taking it all in. It’s painted cream apart from one wall, which is papered with what looks like very expensive blue striped paper. Everything matches; the furniture, the blinds, the bedspread, and the rug in the middle of the floor. It’s perfect, accented with all these little silver accessories and black and white photographs of cities and vintage cars. Every time he thinks he’s seen everything, he finds something else. Whenever he’s imagined what his own room might look like, it looked a lot like this. He feels himself well up a little but forces it down. Tears are for later, when he’s alone.

“You really didn’t have to,” he says, quietly, with a shake of his head.

“I know. I wanted to. We couldn’t just leave you.”

“We?”

“Me, Ems and Naomi,” she begins, crossing the room. “I didn’t tell anyone else,” she sits down, leaving a little distance between them. “I thought, you know, you’d need time.”

“Yeah. Thanks, it’s …” he falls silent, because he can already tell she won’t be the one who needs all the answers.

Explaining himself is a habit now. He’s been trained to speak about his feelings instead of just speaking his mind, and like most habits, once formed, it’s hard to break. Even so, she’s not ready for that. Not yet.

“I wasn’t sure about …” it’s her turn to stop short now. The look is enough.

He forces himself to think about anything other than Effy, Karen, JJ and Freddie, but of course, they’re all he can think about.

“So, you’re alright with this then?” he asks, before he’s realised.

“You wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, would you?” she replies, simply.

***

Before he realises, two days have disappeared entirely, in a blur of fitful sleep, broken only by the odd vivid nightmare. He’d hoped, naïvely, that perhaps a change of scene would make them stop, but like always, the moment he settled, they arrived; odd vivid nightmare; bright, sharp, shards of memories that never completely dull. He’s learned to cope, more or less, to live with their existence, though he’s fought them for years now, they’ll never leave him completely. Something else to carry. But, unlike every other night, it hasn’t been a doctor, a nurse or his shocked cellmate who’s comforted him, it’s been Katie, coming back and forth with tea, toast and soup or his tablets. She didn’t say a word when he put two bottles into the bathroom cabinet, one a painkiller and the other his anti-anxiety medication.

Even when he thrashed a bit and yelled things, she didn’t flinch once. It’s only now, as he shuffles in from his room, rubbing his eyes, that he realises why – she must have been there for Effy, in exactly the same way whilst she recovered in the hospital. He can’t help but feel sad at the connection, and yet, feel comforted by it at the same time. Of all the people he could’ve to chosen help him, he picked Katie; probably the most well-prepared of them all.

Without her, it would have been much worse, and he definitely wouldn’t be in the state he is now.

On Sunday, he’d managed to catch up on enough sleep to finally behave like a human being again instead of medicated zombie. She was already busy when he finally woke up, cooking him a proper roast dinner, with instructions from her mum. He sat on a stool near the counter in the kitchen, playing chef when things needed chopping or tasting, but mostly they talked, and Katie filled in five years worth of gap when they sat down to eat.

After Freddie, university and travelling was the first thing to send their group off to different corners of the world, setting the pattern for how the rest of their lives would go from the day he got sentenced to the day of his release. Panda made it to Harvard and remained there ever since. Now writing her thesis, she pops back every so often, and they always meet for drinks.

Naomi and Emily got to Goa six months late, and then took up places at Oxford and Kings College when they came back. They married of course, like he knew they always would, and made a new life for themselves in London; Naomi working for Reuters and Emily in youth work, for The Advocacy Project. Katie’s face lit up whenever she spoke about her niece, Georgia, just six-months-old and a miniature version of them both. Their pictures are all over the flat and he’s spoken to them both briefly on the phone, and seen a video of the baby on Katie’s laptop.

JJ went to St Andrews, and later moved to Glasgow, to work for an architecture firm. Still with Lara, they’d gotten engaged and he was now a proper dad to a very cheeky looking five-year-old Albert – if the photos are anything to go by – with a daughter of his own on the way.

Effy went back to Italy with Anthea, and they got a place out there that Katie’s been to a few times in the summer months. Happy and settled, she’s travelling around – currently in Mexico, Katie said – working as a successful photojournalist for various magazines, and she got emails and phone calls when the reception was good.

Karen, understandably, left with her dad when the house was sold, and took time to get her life back on track. Now a fashion stylist, she and Katie often crossed paths at trade shows and other events. The last time they met, just a month ago, she was starting to get real attention for her work instead of what once happened to her brother. The glossy fashion magazine Katie showed him is still on the table, opened to the page of the spread. Her name is in the corner, in tiny letters: styling by Karen De Luca. He recalls with some sadness, that De Luca was their mother’s maiden name.

The only missing piece was Thomas. Until this point, she’d been fairly forthcoming about the questions he’d asked, but at the mention of his name, she’d almost clammed up entirely. All she’d say was that he’d disappeared off the map after Harvard, when an injury ended his athletics career. Even Pandora hadn’t heard from him in some time.

He didn’t have the heart to press her on it, because it’d be difficult for them both to go over old ground. He’d been similarly quiet when they’d talked about Effy and Karen, and lapsed completely into silence when his thoughts came back to Freddie; wondering what he’d look like, where he’d be and what he’d be doing.

Katie left herself until last of course, glossing over those difficult months with Effy before Italy, talking more openly and enthusiastically about her training as a hairdresser, living with Naomi and Emily in London whilst she took courses at the Tigi Academy and worked as an apprentice in a local salon. She hadn’t planned to come back to Bristol, but the graduate stylist vacancy at Moda opened up whilst she was home visiting her parents, and was too good an opportunity to miss. Her getting it was a fluke she said, and played down the awards she’d already won and high-profile shoots she’d worked on, like her skill and obvious talent meant nothing at all. Modesty from Katie Fitch, the former WAG-in-waiting is something he would’ve never anticipated.

Though she isn’t actually with him, she’s still here in note form. When he goes to the cupboard for cereal, he sees one from her held to the fridge door by a smiley-faced magnet.

Had to go into work. Hope you managed to sleep a bit better. There’s some food in the fridge courtesy of my mum! (Don’t worry; she’s in a Jamie Oliver phase, so it’s actual food!) Be back later. If you need anything, call the salon and ask for Kate. K xoxo.

Kate. A small change, just for work she says, so she sounds more professional. As for his new name; though it still sounds odd coming from her, and she stumbles over it and has to correct herself, she’s accepted it. She knows what it’s like to want to shed skin and tear down the past. They’re similar now in ways he never imagined.

It’s nice for someone to care because they want to rather than having to. He’s still getting used to this thoughtful side of her. For a moment, he traces his finger over the writing, like he used to do when she and Naomi would send him letters, because it made them more real to him, made their image less fuzzy in his mind. Sometimes, he’d imagine them sitting right next to him, chatting away, sipping on coffee (Katie) or smoking a cigarette (Naomi), just to lessen the ache of loneliness. Then, it got too much, and he couldn’t pretend he was doing OK or wonder what information they were leaving out so he wouldn’t be worried, like those censored letters from the war. Though they were the brightest part of his day, he’s sure his replies were the darkest of theirs. Freddie and Foster hung over them all like a dark cloud, he didn’t want to add to the weight, so he ended it. No letters. No visits. He cut all contact in one go after a final letter to them both. They understood, he needed to do it alone.

Except, now there are all these people, waiting and wanting to be in his life again, and he’s not sure how to please them all or even if he can.

***

He’s out on the balcony, hood up, smoking and circling vacancies in the jobs section of The Bristol Evening Post when Katie comes back, bags in hand. He stubs out his cigarette, and folds up the paper. Only two jobs are circled so far: one a shelf stacker at the confectioners that JJ and Lara used to work at, and the other a delivery driver for a parcel company. Hardly high-flying, but it’s better than nothing.

“Cheers for tidying up. You’re a star,” she exclaims, surrounded by brightly-coloured shopping bags, when he comes inside.

He scratches his head and shrugs, “It’s nothin.’ Least I could do.”

Though he brushes off her praise, really, he’s secretly pleased she’s noticed. He likes to feel useful, like he’s contributing, even if it’s something small. He’s learned to be valuable and useful in ways that don’t involve money. Kindness costs nothing, and it’s the only currency he’s got.

“Any luck?” she gestures to the paper.

“Nah, not really,” he shakes his head, knocking down his hood. “It’d be quicker to tell you what I can’t do,” he continues, sadly, tossing the paper onto the coffee table.

“You’ve still got time, don’t worry,” she replies, with typical brightness. Nothing seems to faze her.

“I just want to get something sorted,” he puts the paper down on the coffee table and sits down on the sofa, a little away from her.

“I know. But, it’s barely been a week yet,” she says, peering into one of the bags before turning back to him.

What he really wants to say is that he’s eager to show that he can do something under his own steam without talking it through or having it arranged, but as soon as he thinks it, he realises how stupid it sounds; how needy and pathetic, that somewhere, there’s still a part of him that seeks approval and wants to impress people. Jamie’s still in there somewhere.

“Can’t scrounge off you forever, can I?” he smiles weakly. “My dad’s made a career out of it. I don’t think I’ll be followin’ in his footsteps anytime soon,” he holds the resentment in for Katie’s sake.

“Good. But, maybe I can help a bit?”

His reply is quick, “You have. You are.”

She holds up a finger, silencing him. “Let me finish, will you?!” he nods, gesturing for her to go on. “Everyone needs to be contactable, don’t they? Have a phone and things? They don’t really do postal things anymore.”

Holding out a bag, she motions for him to take it.

It makes him think the HMP Bristol one in his room, left almost untouched since he arrived, and how it was hidden away inside the almost empty wardrobe. Out of sight, but not entirely out of mind. For a fleeting moment, he wonders if any of the old messages are still on his voicemail or if they’re deleted when the number goes out of service. It’d be like having a time machine; and he could undo it all, pretend it never happened. But then, hearing their voices and reading their words will only remind him what he’s lost. What he took for granted.

“Katie …”

James …” she looks at him pointedly. “Yours is probably de–” she cuts herself off, wincing at her mistake.

“You can say the word, love,” he gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“They change a lot … phones … I mean,” she continues, ignoring him. Her cheeks are flushed with embarrassment.

“This is too much,” he says, shaking his head and feeling himself well up a bit when he sees a picture of a phone on the box inside. He opens it quickly, tearing the box in excitement, like a child, because it’s not just any phone, it’s an iPhone, just like Katie’s only it’s black instead of white. ”Thank you. Really.” He smiles wide, a proper smile, the first he can remember in a while.

Her eyes brim with tears as she speaks, “I just wanted to get you something, you know, as a welcome home. We haven’t really celebrated, and we should,” she stops a moment, a little overcome. “You’ve missed so much, it’s not fair.”

“I’m not the only one … fuckin’ hell,” he breaks then, and a small sob makes its way out. He doesn’t know what to do with himself because she’s finally admitted the one thing neither of them has wanted to say all these years.

She puts a tentative arm around him, “Don’t do that, my bloody mascara will run and I’ll look like a fucking panda!” she says, swatting an inky tear away.

“Can’t have that, can we?” he collects himself a bit, trying to get her to look at him, to make her laugh. Anything so he doesn’t have to see her like that again. “Especially if we’re gonna take a picture, to celebrate me returning to the human race and all that.”

“Let’s show them what James looks like, shall we?” Katie beams, taking the phone from his hand and turning it toward them both.

The picture’s taken before he can protest. When she turns it back towards him, he realises how long it’s been since he’s really looked at himself in a mirror. He looks different, of course, but that’s not what strikes him. He looks like anyone else; could be anyone else. There’s no hint of what’s happened, what he’s been through or how far he’s come, and he likes it.

James is a clean slate, and it’s all up to him to keep it that way.

***

Sat in the reception of the delivery company, he feels sick with nerves. He’s been to a few interviews already this week and heard nothing back. The rest of the time, he’s been going up and down the high street, looking in shop windows for cards or going inside sometimes just to ask if he can do anything at all, but every time, he’s come away with nothing but promises of keeping him in mind, or other places he could try.

If nothing else, he at least looks employable, thanks to Katie buying him a new, fitted charcoal suit, shiny black shoes and a matching tie before he got his haircut yesterday, when he dropped in to meet her just before the salon closed. She’s refused to let him pay for anything until he’s earning a wage, and she and pretended to her boss that the junior cut it instead of her so he got it for free.

Four other people arrived before him, and they’ve all been seen. They never spoke a word the entire time, but glanced at over, warily, every so often, sizing up the competition: tense, suspicious, and defensive. A copy of his CV, written with Katie’s help is rolled up between his hands, and he can’t keep his feet still. He’s been to the water cooler twice, and gotten filthy looks from the skinny blonde girl behind the desk with a hands-free earpiece surgically attached to her head. There’s an artificial plant in the corner, but otherwise, the place is just sterile and white, like a hospital. The only thing that’s missing is the disinfectant. It’s busy, with people coming and going; most in suits, management types, but there’s bloke in grey uniforms with parcels under their arms or on trolleys.

Everything about this feels wrong: his tie, his shoes, the fact he’s wearing either of them at all. When he looks at himself in the reflection of the glass doors, a stranger stares back. He’s just about to leave when the door opposite opens, and a dark-haired man in rimless glasses and a blue suit comes out.

“James Cook?” he calls, curtly.

He clears his throat and signals and the man motions for him to come inside.

The chair in here, though considerably more plush, is somehow less comfortable than the angular plastic ones outside. The man, Mr Theo Landry, head of Human Resources, as his desk name plate says, sits down and looks over his application, pulling a slim sliver pen from his pocket.

“James, what do you think you can offer the company?” Mr Landry asks, in the same curt tone.

He takes a breath, and tries to remember what he and Katie practised.

“I’m not afraid of hard work. I can use my own initiative. I’ve lived in Bristol all my life, so I have a good working knowledge of the area.”

“All fine attributes, and you’re obviously very punctual. An hour early, that’s quite a record.”

He stays silent, because he’s not sure if he’s being praised or mocked. There’s a hint of a smirk on Landry’s face that tells him it might be the latter. He ignores it, focussing on one of the framed newspaper cuttings on the wall behind the desk instead, gripping the arms of the chair tighter.

“Do you think you’re suited to a company environment? Are you a team player, James?”

“I like to think so. I get on well with people.”

Landry writes a note on his application and looks up.

“Yes, but we’re in the business of logistics, James. Of, delivering, quite literally on promises. We admire discretion and honestly from our workforce. Do you consider yourself an honest person?”

Landry leans forward at this point, and he tenses, knowing what’s coming. The fact he’s got a good references from Dr Nicholls and Doug (he was typically warm and helpful on the phone, as if he’d left Roundivew ten minutes ago) or that he’s practically taught himself his A-Levels doesn’t matter. All Landry sees is the obvious, gaping, five year gap in his CV.

“I do,” he pauses to gather himself. He might as well say it now. “The gap’s there because I was in prison.”

Landry’s eyes widen.

“I see,” he pauses for a moment.

“No, you don’t see,” he shakes his head, jaw clenching.

Whatever patience he had is gone, because for eight jobs now – jobs he could do standing on his head or ones for trained monkeys – every time his past’s come up they’ve turned him down flat. He’s had enough.

“Mr Cook, please,” Landry holds up his hands, nervous.

It all comes out of him in one big rush, much quicker and louder than he ever meant it to.

“It won’t matter to you that I got time off for good behaviour or that it was self-defence, on account of the other bloke coming at me with baseball bat and trying to kneecap me because he was completely mental. It won’t matter to you that I’d just found out he’d beaten my best fuckin’ friend to death! All you’re gonna see is that gap, and think you can’t trust me. That I’ll rob you and try to sell it all on or keep it for myself!” he yells, shaking with anger, breathless.

Landry’s closer to the wall now than the desk, “I’m afraid … I can’t make these decisions,” he replies, slowly, carefully, staring at him as if he’s dangerous.

Any second, he’ll be thrown out by the big uniformed security blokes out the front. It’s the threat of that which makes him stop; that makes him sit back down and breathe deeper, calming himself, just like he’s been taught. He knows the signs now, when he’s reached the end of his rope. Pivotally, he’s learned when to back down and walk away.

“It’s commendable that you’ve worked so hard to better yourself, but it’s company policy. The nature of the position means we simply couldn’t offer you the job –”

He stands and loosens his tie, replying quietly, and calmly, “I know the score. It’s OK. Keep that,” he screws up the CV and throws it into the mesh wastepaper bin near the desk. “And keep your job!” he adds, with a final nod.

Landry doesn’t speak again and neither does he. Turning toward the door, he takes out the anger he’s got left on that instead. Yanking it open hard, he marches out, straight into the rain.

***

He’s been wandering, aimlessly, for hours, mulling everything over. It’s colder now, even though the rain’s stopped and his clothes have long since dried out. The sky’s darkened, the street lights have started to come on.

The limp he fought so hard with the physios to correct is back, and every step is torturous. He winces, gritting his teeth, taking in more air to cope. He was used to this pain, once; readily forced himself to endure it without painkillers so he wouldn’t be targeted on the wing or tempted to trade them when things were bad. Still, they came like he knew they would, and though he could look after himself well enough, they were better able to defend themselves, until Deano came to his rescue – six foot tall and thirteen stone. A fairer fight than this, he thinks hobbling across a pedestrian crossing. At least he knew where he was with robbers, and junkies and violent head cases. He could read them like a book and predict what was coming. They were honest about what they wanted from him, and never changed the goal posts at the drop of a hat like smarmy, human resources managers, flashy bar managers or balding shopkeepers pretending to be kind, when really they’re twitchy and mistrustful.

So much for second chances.

Unsteady now, he’s started to bump into people as he carries on down the road, looking for anything familiar, but there’s nothing. They tut, swear and mutter, looking at him like he’s drunk, dangerous, diseased or all three, backing away because they’re afraid of what he’ll do. These were his streets once. He knew every shortcut, every pub, every place to buy good weed. His very own map. Now it’s all gone, and the faces he comes across are rarely kind.

It’s all too much. The noise, the people, the traffic; he can’t think straight.

His phone’s been ringing ever since he left the offices, but he hasn’t answered it, because he doesn’t need to look at the screen to know it’s Katie, wondering where he’s got to and how it all went. He can’t face her. He can’t bring himself to tell her that he’s failed. It’s her that he feels sorry for. Every time she’s come through the door from work and they’ve talked about their day, the ending has always been the same. Suit or no suit, it’s always been a no, and with every shake of his head, he’s watched her face fall, and look at him sadly, and he knows it’s grinding her down too. It’s getting harder and harder for her to try and say the right thing and comfort him. The ‘next times’ are running out. It came as no surprise to him, really, that things with Landry went as they did, because there’s an inevitable pattern forming. He’s invisible and unemployable; a conclusion he wasn’t far from after the fourth rejection. Katie’s the reason why he went to the interview in the first place. She convinced him to try, allowed him to hope: a dangerous thing.

The second he sets eyes on the park, he knows why he’s struggled on so far. He’s finally found somewhere he remembers: Freddie’s park, their second home during the summer months. He clings on to the gate for support, practically dragging himself until he’s sitting in his favourite spot at the top of the ramp; the perfect vantage point to watch Freddie do his tricks on the halfpipe. Suddenly, he’s sixteen again, with a warm can of beer in one hand and a spliff in the other, laughing as he watches Freddie and all his skater mates do their stuff while music blasts out from someone’s stereo, Karen doing some funny dance routine to it with her mates. JJ’s there too, rambling on about how Freddie needs to buy a helmet or some knee pads because he’s so accident prone, right as he comes off for the umpteenth time, scraping his knees badly as he lands. Then, it’s all gone again, and he’s alone in an empty skate park, and his face is streaming with tears. No matter what he does or what kind of man he becomes, he can’t ever undo all the hurt they caused each other or the mistakes he made. He can never get those years back. With his head buried in his hands, he gives himself over to it, not bothered who might see him crying.

“Jay?”

He stiffens at the sound, jerking his head up in response, already knowing who he’ll see when he turns round. Katie. Her little pet name for him usually makes him smile, reminds him how close they’ve become, but today, it makes his heart sink that little bit more. Embarrassed, he rubs his face, swatting away the tears.

Glancing back, he sees her standing a little way away in her dark jeans and tan UGG boots, a striped t-shirt and long grey cardigan, obviously far too thin for this cold, and she hugs herself against it.

“How did you know I’d be here?”

“I just had a feeling,” she says, coming closer, beginning to shiver, before sliding down next to him. “I’ve been so fucking worried about you, I thought you might be in a ditch somewhere!” she continues, her face etched with concern.

“Sorry.”

“You better be!” she fishes in his pocket, and holds up his phone. “Try answering this once in a while!” she gives him a swift punch in the arm. “Don’t do that to me again! Fucking idiot!”

The threat goes out of her voice because her teeth are chattering slightly. He feels incredibly guilty now, because she’s still upset, and soon, she’ll be disappointed too.

Some things never change.

“Here, you’ll freeze to death,” he comments, taking off his jacket and putting it around her shoulders in the hope it’ll be warmer.

“Thanks,” she gathers it closer around herself. “Talk to me, tell me what happened.”

He half-smiles, knowing he’s been rumbled. He can already tell she isn’t going to let this go without an explanation, and, more than that, he knows she deserves one.

“I just,” he takes a breath, trying to gather himself. “I didn’t get it. They won’t look at me!” he continues, feeling another tear roll down his cheek.

“It’s their loss,” she replies, determined and matter-of-fact. “If they can’t see you for who you are –”

He cuts her off, “Katie, please. I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but …”

“But what? It’s true!” she shakes her head, frowning.

“I can’t do all this. I can’t be out and do things properly. I can’t live like a normal person!” he pulls at his tie, frustrated when it won’t undo, so it’s left hanging loosely round his neck.

“What?” her voice waivers. “You can! You just have to keep trying, that’s all.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees tears brimming in her eyes. He looks up to the night sky, because he can’t bear to look her in the face. Everything in him is telling him to go, the voice in his head, screaming loudly, but a quieter, newer voice is telling him to stay, because it’s Katie, and he can’t bear to break her heart like everyone else.

“People are never going to give me a chance, Katie!” he says, angrily. “I’ll always be that bloke who’s been to prison, or the one whose best friend got battered by some psycho doctor!”

He’s fighting with himself not to cry, because the last thing she needs is him spilling his guts out everywhere.

“Don’t,” she pleads. “Don’t.”

She’s seen too much. She knows too much. There’s no point in trying to hold any of this in anymore. For once, he opens his mouth and the truth comes out freely.

A strangled sob makes its way out, “I’ve got nothing,” he says with a slow shake of his head, utterly defeated.

“That’s not true!” she replies, suddenly, sounding angry.

“It’s not?”

She turns his head, forcing him to look at her. “No,” she replies through her tears. “You’ve got me.”

They say nothing for a moment, and just look at each other. Then, Katie leans forward, hesitantly, pressing her lips softly against Cook’s. Caught off-guard, it takes him a few seconds to realise what’s happening before he’s kissing back.

“I do?” he whispers, when they break apart, and he realises he’s asking rather than saying it. She nods, blushing, and smiling shyly; a beautiful, slow-burn smile that he’s never seen before. “I do,” he repeats, louder, starting to believe it when he kisses her again, cradling her face in his hands.