BY NATASHA COYLE
Copyright is held by the author.
EVERY DAY, a man walked backwards. He walked backwards through Derby’s streets and had become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Onlookers mused over him, wondering why he walked that way.
“The bloke must be on drugs,” a young man said to his girlfriend as they were heading for lunch at The Cosy Club just off St Peter’s street, huddled underneath a yellow umbrella.
The only thing locals knew about the man who walked backwards was that he was in the city centre every day without fail. He always wore the same dirtied, baggy clothes, with a ragged beanie over his unkempt hair. Everyone knew him as the man who walked backwards. Most people thought that he was deaf or mad and would not hear, not register, some of the hurtful words or assumptions directed toward him.
Today, he plodded along the slippery cobble stones of Iron Gate, having gone past the Council building, moving towards Joseph Wright. He tossed up the possibility of going past The Bless. No, he thought, not today. Not ever again.
“Oh, come on John. Stop bein’ so mardy. It’ll be good to see if the place has changed.”
John let himself be dragged towards what had been their favourite pub. Mary’s left hand was clasped around his own. He glanced down at the silver ring on her wedding finger and smiled to himself. She’d shaken up her wardrobe recently with the skinny, low-rise jeans, slinky top, straight red hair when she usually wore it curly, and frosted lip gloss. She had a Nokia 3310 in her back-left pocket.
“This is what all the young kids wear nowadays, John. I canny let myself get old too fast.”
“You’re not old. You’re only 34.”
“True. At least I’ve not hit 40 yet.” He rolled his eyes as she giggled.
They entered The Bless. It hadn’t changed much, apart from the walls, which had a new lick of paint, and some of the chairs had been replaced. The owners had somehow managed to get rid of the earthy smell that used to linger everywhere, and John remembered that when he tried to escape it outside, he was hit with clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Ayup, what can I get for ya duck?” the barman asked.
“Do you still serve lemon bombs?”
“We do indeed. £6 for five.”
Mary twisted her head to John, raising her eyebrows. He knew what she meant. Back then, it had been £2 for five. Turning back to the barman, she said she’d take five lemon bombs and two pints of Estrella.
“God I’ve not had one of these in years,” Mary said, laughing, holding a lemon bomb in her right hand after they’d sat down. “Cheers to us.”
They clinked glasses and downed the concoction that he’d never really enjoyed. The limoncello reminded him of the 2p sherbets he’d buy at the corner shop on the way to school when he was 12. Once, he’d sucked on too many during his lessons and he fainted from the sugar rush. His mother had not been pleased, having to leave work early to pick him up from the nurse’s office. From that point on, she had constantly reminded John that sweets were no good for young boys. Now he only stomached the drink because Mary had always liked them, but that memory always resurfaced. Mary’s face scrunched up, but she had a smile underneath. John began to sip his pint in attempt to wash away the taste of the lemon bomb.
“Some things don’t change.” He laughed when she picked up another lemon bomb after Oasis’s ‘Whatever’ began to play over the speakers.
Mary sang along to the lyrics: “I’m free-eee to be whatever I . . .” She laughed in her usual way, the low-pitched, throaty giggle with the odd snort, which made John laugh. It always made him laugh. Eventually regaining some of her control, she sighed, smiling at John. Most of the frosted lip gloss had been rubbed off onto the empty glasses. She swung her foot to collide with his under the table, her heeled boots hitting his Converse.
“You’ve changed, just a tad,” Mary leant over the table for his hand, squeezing it gently, her eyes still on his. Even now, that look made his heart quicken.
“I wonder why that is,” he joked, squeezing her hand back, and took another sip of lager.
Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ blasted through the large speakers by the small DJ booth tucked away in the corner from the bar. The boys had dragged John along to Derby’s hotspot, and John was glad he came. Work hadn’t been great recently; his manager had been on his back when the production of engines had slowed. It hadn’t been his, or any of his colleagues’ fault. There’d been a cock-up on the delivery of parts. When the manager had confronted John, all the other blokes thought the guy was picking on him as John always kept to himself, pottering along at work. Rolls Royce had its perks, but like any job, it required at least five pints on a Friday night to forget the issues of the week.
Timmy — the ringleader who got the boys in the pub on a Friday — leant casually with one arm on the wall next to the bar, talking to a petite lass with a dark perm, bright-coloured eyeshadow, and a turquoise windbreaker. She was mesmerised by him. He had a casual ability to drop in the fact he was an engineer when his actual job was on the factory line fitting parts to engines that couldn’t yet be done by a robot. John didn’t know if it was Timmy’s blonde, quiffy hair, or his oozing confidence. Somehow, Timmy went home every week from a trip to the pub with a new girl, and usually forgot her name. John liked Timmy. He didn’t like how Timmy saw everything as a little game. John especially didn’t like how Timmy both casually and easily lied to others. But Timmy was always good to John. He’d been the one to stand up to their manager and the one that introduced John to the rest of the guys when he’d moved to Royces after working at a local car garage.
After sinking his fifth pint, John elbowed his way through the overcrowded Bless without realizing he was elbowing the people around him. He managed to reach the bar without being blinded by the rainbow-coloured clothes or caught in the centre of two large perms. The surface was sticky.
“What can I get you, love?” the woman manning the bar asked.
John ordered another pint of Estrella. He fiddled in his jeans pocket to find £1.10. He lifted his head up but the barwoman said, “You’ve already had ya drink paid for.”
“But I . . .”
“You’re welcome.” A lady who he hadn’t seen right beside him in his stupor leant on the bar. She smiled casually at him. John thought he’d blacked out. Why would a young woman, and a very lovely looking woman at that, be standing and leaning on the bar right in front of him? Why wasn’t she talking to someone like Timmy?
“You gonna tell me your name then, since I bought you a drink ‘n’ all?” John rubbed his free palm onto his jeans. Even on an empty stomach with five pints circulating inside him, he didn’t get that buzz of confidence that usually happened at this point of the night.
“Mary. After Jesus’ mum. My family are Irish Catholics.” John relaxed slightly and Mary lifted her left eyebrow, the side of her lip curling into that smile. “Well, cheers.”
They clinked glasses then sipped at their pints.
“I reckon you could do with summit a little stronger,” she continued and grabbed the attention of the barwoman. A moment later, five lemon bombs were placed in front of them. Mary handed him one.
Mary raised her glass first, and John met hers with a clink and a nod of his head. She downed the drink; John followed suit.
Normally, the boys had triple whiskeys for a pound, and even though this was the first time a woman had bought him a drink, he definitely preferred the whiskey.
“So, what brings ya here, tonight?”
“To be honest, a shite day at work. Had to deal with a bloody mardy manager all week. You buying me a drink makes it all worth it.”
John was surprised at himself when the words came tumbling out. He’d never really chatted to a girl, and not one who’d bought him a drink. Wasn’t the guy supposed to buy the girl a drink to make the first move?
“Well, it’s my pleasure. Erm, do ya fancy headin’ outside? I canny really hear ya in here!” she shouted, over the rising noise of the pub.
Numbness ebbed down his arms and legs and Mary reached for his free hand. Hers fitted delicately inside his. John thought he saw Timmy on his way outside, followed by a roar from the lads, who had congregated by the bar and were all laughing and gesturing in his direction. Not taking any notice, he kept his eyes on the back of Mary’s head. She looked back and smiled at him but then her face disappeared in the clouds of cigarette smoke.
Today was grey. It started to rain at midday. Walking backwards past Primark, he observed shoppers retreat into its cover. The midday coffee drinkers turned to stare out through the windows and watched the rain as the high street began to empty. Today, no one seemed to offer him a second glance, all too concerned of getting out of the rain that now pelted down onto the ground. It had rained like this at Timmy’s funeral, the type of rain that you’d come unprepared for but was merciless and drenched you until you were sodden and shivering. The funeral had been the last time he’d seen the boys. Timmy had been the cement holding them altogether, well keeping John involved with the guys. The water trickled off his beard. Rain soaked through his hat, washing the greasy hair underneath. As he walked towards The Corn Exchange, he slowed his pace, watching as a drop of rain ran down a panel of glass. He stood there for a while.
He focused on the droplets running down the window as rain fell onto his face.
“Remember this is where we had our first kiss?” Mary laughed, pulling John into her. They stood in the corner where the stairs outside spiralled up to the owner’s living quarters.
“ ’Course I do.”
John wrapped his arm around her. As they got closer, he smelt the mixture of drinks on her breath. She bit down hard on her lower lip, lifting her eyes to him. He wanted to leave, right now, but Mary sighed and sank into his embrace.
“It feels like nothing has changed,” she whispered.
“Apart from your hair. I think I actually liked the perm more.”
She pulled away and hit him in that fake-annoyed way that couples do. John reached out and grabbed her. When they’d first met in this place, she had leaned in, instigated everything because he was unsure how to. He held her close to his frame, a gentle hand wrapped across her lower back, the other placed on her left cheek.
“I love you, Mary.”
Everyone who watched him walk backwards thought he was homeless, but that didn’t mean he actually was. The dirty flat on the bottom floor of his block, just on the outskirts of town, was silent. Unopened letters littered the floor. Picking one up, he could see who had posted it. One of his welfare councillors. He knew what it would say.
“Dear Mr. John Wallace,
I am concerned that you have missed your third re-scheduled appointment with me . . . blah, blah. I, along with another officer will be . . . doodee, dadumb, mumbo-jumbo, word vomit about things they can’t help him with,
He held the letter, still unopened, letting it fall into the open-top bin in the kitchen that had three days’ worth of unwashed dishes and empty cans of baked beans and sausages on the side. They didn’t actually care about him, no one did. It was only their job to care.
John had his arm over Mary’s shoulder, hers around his waist. It was 6:30 pm; the streets were peaceful, and the alcohol had hit the pair of them. It was too early for students to be heading out to Mosh Monday, and most of the after-work crowd had already dispersed. Walking back towards the Eagle Centre to catch a hackney carriage, John realized he didn’t have enough cash to pay for their trip home. He wasn’t going to drive now and told Mary he’d pick his car up from the Assembly Rooms tomorrow. John knew there was a cashpoint up by Primark. They walked up the street and turned left. He loosely let go of Mary, who moaned about the loss of his warmth. John bowed his head to the keypad, focusing on the numbers as his vision started to blur. Mary came over to him, planting a peck on his stubbly cheek.
“Oi, save it for later you. Go’warn, over there, stop distracting me.”
Mary giggled and obediently moved away and leant against a bollard. John heard Mary start to sing ‘Personal Jesus’. As John took his credit card and £10 from the cash machine, he turned to see Mary singing, ‘Reach out and touch faith’. A moment later she wasn’t singing any more. Mary was motionless on the ground. He grabbed her shoulders, shaking her frantically. It was no use. John didn’t even hear his own scream or notice the few people that had been standing by crowd around him, or the wail of ambulance sirens. Two paramedics who had arrived hauled him off her lifeless body. He’d instructed her to stand away from him and she’d complied. Mary never usually took orders, from anyone.
His throat was hoarse from all the screaming.
John had been staring straight at the same spot, the bright light of the hospital now hazy. An empty pit had formed in his stomach. He hadn’t eaten in so long, but he wasn’t sure whether food would help fill the hole inside him.
“Mr. Wallace?” the nurse repeated. John snapped his head up to her, eyes sore and red. “Follow me, please.”
John draggled behind the nurse, his feet sliding across the floor. She took him through a maze of corridors, all of which looked the same. Eventually, they arrived at a small room, with a desk, two chairs, and some medical supplies. A doctor in a lab coat sat, waiting patiently. John couldn’t decipher the look that lingered in her eyes. The nurse left the room.
“Please sit, Mr.. Wallace. My name is Dr. Anderson.”
“Are you the one that’s been in with my Mary?”
“So what’s happening to her? Have the police been able to identify the vehicle? Someone needs to pay for what they’ve done to her, and you won’t even let me see her and . . .”
“Mr. Wallace,” Dr. Anderson tried to say in the most calming way possible.
John suddenly fell silent, staring at the doctor, his chest and throat tightening, just how it had when his mum had passed and when his dad left when she’d gotten sick. Everyone he loved left him. Mary could not leave, she would not.
“Mr. Wallace, I have some news.”
John stopped shaking, but his heart didn’t slow.
“Mr. Wallace, we couldn’t save them.”
“Mary was pregnant. The accident caused her to have a miscarriage and she lost too much blood . . .”
The rest of the words that came out of Mr. Anderson’s mouth dissipated into nothing. John suddenly felt detached from his own body, standing on the outside watching in, seeing his life crumble before him in that tiny little room. Mary must not have known for how could she not? John’s hands began to shake. He didn’t know he’d collapsed in that little room until he woke up in a hospital bed with the same doctor and two nurses surrounding him.
He always tried to push the memory to the back of his mind, but it never worked. It was the forefront of everything he now was. The first time he’d walked backwards, the sensation had made him dizzy. He’d gotten used to it by now. The welfare appointments hadn’t done anything —the people didn’t get him, not like Mary had. Maybe that’s how Timmy had felt, the feeling that constantly lingered inside his mind and gut. The detached, paralyzing sensation when you feel like you have nothing to live for. John had seen the coroner’s report and the absences of some of Timmy’s family members at the funeral — the religious ones — made John’s heart ache. No one had known what he’d been going through. Only now could John understand.
“Pregnant woman tragically killed in hit and run”, The Derby Telegraph had written. There had been some attempt at analyzing CCTV footage to check the number plate. The car had been stolen they’d said. John didn’t believe them. When the police gave up only after a few weeks, leaving the case unsolved, John was referred to therapy. They told him it had helped partners of victims of things like this. John had stopped going last year since all he did in those sessions was respond to closed questions with yes, no, maybe, or sat in silence while whichever different therapist had tried to get him to open up, to talk. The only person who had been able to do that was Mary, and before her, his mother.
He’d been sacked from work a couple of months after the investigation was dropped when his attendance trickled off: “this is your final warning, John. You either turn up for work or you’re out.” When he couldn’t afford the house, the bank seized it.
John tried not to think about those things too much.
The rain had filtered off since midday and the crowd of mid-week shoppers switched to laughing school kids. He slowed to watch them, happy in their bubble, ignorant to his gaze. Alex would’ve just started secondary school this year. John had named the child Alex. Pushing the thought down inside him, he continued to slog on around the streets. He walked backwards up towards the two different Wetherspoons side-by-side, towards the cathedral over the bridge. Maybe he’d try branching out of the city centre, but his eyesight was waning, and the number plates were too far away for him to see if he only stood on the cathedral bridge.
As he passed a group of children in blue school blazers, a girl said, “Have you seen that guy before, the one who’s always walking backwards?” Her friends had replied in agreement. “He does it all the time. I wonder why he walks like that.”
“I dunno, he’s probs some weird homeless guy,” one of the lads responded, laughing, turning his attention back to the others.
“Hmm. I wonder if he’s okay,” the girl said, as if it was an afterthought, turning round to look at John. Their eyes locked for a moment. He stopped walking. She offered him a smile and waited for one back.
“C’mon Alex,” one of her friends called.
The girl held her smile for another second then ran after her friends: “Wait up!”
John stood there, watching her red hair flap about behind her as she caught up with the others. A tear rolled down his cheek and he let it. When he could no longer see the girl with red hair, he began walking backwards.
Natasha Coyle is currently studying a Masters in English Literature: Fantasy at the University of Glasgow and graduated from the University of Exeter in 2022 with BA(Hons) English. She is from the East Midlands in England, but has enjoyed moving around the U.K. for her studies. She is a regular writer for The Glasgow Guardian and enjoys writing for the sports, culture, and lifestyle sections. She performs stand-up comedy with GLASS, a student-run comedy society at U of G and have written video sketches. She is passionate about storytelling in her writing and in her stand-up comedy where she experiments with writing and telling heartfelt stories and funny ones about people. Her inspiration for writing often comes from day-to-day observation and she enjoys writing intriguing characters.