Written by James McCann
Bobby sat at the crossroads, waiting for the lights to change. He was thirty-two, married to Ellie, and had a three-year old son, Jack, at home. Back when Bobby was Jack’s age you couldn’t drive through this part of town, it was a thriving retail district, not quite as busy or bustling as the High Street, but it was still packed enough to be pedestrian-only, and the people who worked here had decent homes and drove good cars and received bank statements that didn’t make them cry. The people who owned the stores (five owners between thirteen stores) lived in very nice homes, were driven in very good cars, and had bank statements that read like telephone numbers. It was the type of place where Bobby’s mother or father would have to carry him if they went there on a weekend; it just wasn’t safe for him to be at ground-level. During the summers, people were guaranteed to faint from the heat. Once, when Bobby had been twelve and trying to woo young Hayley Tenner with a strawberry ice-cream (it hadn’t worked), he’d seen an old woman drop dead from the heat.
Now, the only store down here that was still open was the charity shop, selling people’s unwanted books and out-dated CDs, and the clothes of the dead. It was demoralising and depressing to drive by and see so many boarded-up and white-washed windows. With each business that closed down and went under, Bobby felt another piece of his childhood die, another multi-shaded Technicolour memory tarnished and faded to sepia. The busy shuck-ching!of cash registers sounding yet another sale had long been replaced by the hammering of nails going into boards (over windows and into For Sale signs). It was, what, twelve years ago the city council decided to de-pedestrianise the streets, allowing the cars to take that short cut that would save the wear and tear on the main roads and all the maintenance they required. Some people had noted that in turn the road crews were working less hours as well. Whether the retail district surfaces were strong enough or durable enough to withstand the heavy pounding of traffic had never been a concern.
The lights turned green, Bobby pulled the car out. The traffic was quiet at this time of day, everybody was already wherever it was they were going by 8PM, and Bobby enjoyed tremendously when his was the only vehicle on the road. He could clear his head, and really think things through. Thinking. Bobby had been doing that a lot recently, a lot more than Ellie knew of. He was still young enough to successfully start over, he was a fully-qualified electrician, was very close to the same as a plumber, and was the foreman of J and B Construction. Surely he could go anywhere and find work? And, he figured, if he couldn’t find work he’d just start his own company and work self-employed.
He had not, of course, mentioned these thoughts to Ellie. He wasn’t entirely sure what she’d say about it, about his great master plan that contained absolutely no details, but he had a good idea that he could guess. Ellie had always played it safe; in her work life she never went for promotions, just in case she didn’t get it and had rocked the boat unnecessarily. In her private life she was just as bad. Ellie had taken five weeks to give her answer when he proposed (everything was good as it was, why change things?), and then had doubled back on herself several times once they’d agreed the time was right for children (everything was good as it was, why change things? And what if we don’t like children? What if the sprog comes between us?), so Bobby had continued to use a condom every time they lay together as husband and wife. Just as Ellie had asked (insisted). What Bobby hadn’t told Ellie was that he’d sit and pierce each one with a pin every time he bought a box at the supermarket.
Ellie, he’d long decided, just needed to be pushed into a situation. She was more than capable to handle any situation, she just lacked confidence in herself. Bobby had complete belief in her, and a total trust in themselves as a couple and team to tackle anything. But Ellie’s mother and father were the same; they could never decide on anything, it was a wonder Ellie was here at all.
As Bobby drove further away from the retail district and into the residential areas, he saw more and more For Sale signs. They lined gardens like flags, advertising yet another family that had lost the jobs that were paying their way. First the jobs go, then the people move out, leaving behind all that property. Bobby had wondered if it was all a ploy, lower the house prices, then buy them all up. Then lure big businesses back with the promise of cheap rates, and then selling the houses to the new workers who come here. Bobby had mentioned this idea to Ellie who had agreed that was probably what was happening, and even mentioned that with Bobby’s knowledge of property maybe he should get in on it. This was, it should be pointed out, after she’d been at her friend Patti’s for the evening and had helped empty three bottles of cheap white wine.
Bobby had pointed out then, as he’d mulled over it a thousand times, that the couple wouldn’t be able to get the money to purchase the houses to begin with. The best they could hope for in that situation was that once the houses had been bought, Bobby would get employed to fix them up. In reality, Bobby knew and tried to explain to Ellie at a later, sober, date, the people who’d be buying the houses would probably already have their own teams of professionals for that type of thing.
Every time something that resembled an opportunity came along, there was always something there to keep you down, to stop you from rising up. There was always something, it felt sometimes like life was a game played by the rich; the poor, the working class, were nothing but pawns, just props in their game. And staying here, in the town they’d both grown up in, that they’d met each other and made a life in, was going to kill them. Bobby knew that, and could see that things were going to get much worse before they were going to get better. Considering how much hassle Ellie was to get to agree to the little things, how he was ever going to get her to go for this he didn’t know. But he knew he had to find a way.
Bobby pulled onto the driveway of the semi-detached home he shared with his wife and son, the latter of whom would be asleep by now. Bobby missed not being there to put Jack to bed, to read his only son a bedtime story, but Bobby had to make sacrifices, he had to do over-time and work longer and longer hours while there were still hours to work. Over the past two or three months it hadn’t been unusual for Bobby to pull twelve-hour shifts while he still could, most of that time would actually be spent trying, and failing, to drum-up new business and secure new contracts. There was no work anywhere, Bobby knew. He knew everyday before he picked up the phone and had it confirmed a million times over by the time he put it back down again at the end of the day. For a man as qualified as he was, with the contacts that he’d had, to not be able to find work in twelve hours was a warning sign if ever there was one.
He sighed deeply, rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger, and steeled himself for going in. He had a feeling, gnawing away at him like a cancer, that Ellie was getting tired of putting Jack to bed by herself every day, of being the only parent in their son’s life. In a very real sense she had a very real right to be pissed off, to want her husband to be home more often. In another way, however, she really hadn’t grasped this concept of Bobby being the only one in the family with a job, and therefore the only one allowing them to pay for things. However, Bobby knew that phrasing it quite that bluntly would lead to the inevitable argument where he would be asked repeatedly if he thought raising a three year old by yourself wasn’t work? Did he think she enjoyed not talking to anyone her own age all day? Did he think she had it easy? Did he? Did he?
No. If it could be at all possible, Bobby would like to avoid the conversation taking those types of tones. This conversation was serious enough that he couldn’t risk this becoming a no-go area.
Bobby thought about how Ellie didn't want to believe that all the violence was about something deeper than race, the colour of the person's skin was just the way it had been reported. That was just the easiest explanation the paper could give, and it made better copy than having to go into dangerous details of the truth. The truth was that the people were scared, they were losing their jobs, their homes, they were seeing their home town diminished and vanish before their eyes and they were powerless to stop it. They were losing their sense of themselves. One group blames Reason A, another group blames Reason B, yet another group blames Reason C while trying to defend Reason A, and before you know what day of the week it is, there’s violence. The fights had been minor so far, the abandoned buildings had windows smashed, but there was real danger brewing. It was building and building, and it had nothing to do with whether the bossman was black or white or hiring yellows to work cheaper.
Racism wasn’t a driving factor, at least not at the start. Bobby knew racism was learned behaviour and, once the idea had been planted, it took on a life of its own, like a wild plant that reached out with poisonous vines, killing everything beautiful around it. Racism. It’s the blacks, it’s the whites, it’s the foreigners. It was easy. It was quick. It gave every bad feeling you had a face, it gave you someone to blame. Whether the person you were blaming was responsible or not was irrelevant.
That night, Bobby and Ellie lay awake, talking in hushed tones, not so much to avoid waking Jack, but more because their talk had conspiratorial overtones. Bobby pointed out, as gently as he could, that the town was dying, that it was on life-support at the moment, and the moment the fat cats in charge decided to pull the plug the town was dead, as was everyone in it.
‘Is there nothing we can do?’ Ellie asked, pulling the top sheet closer to her chin, a sure sign that she felt worried and insecure. Vulnerable.
‘There is,’ Bobby said, turning on his side to look at her. ‘You know that.’
‘Is there nothing else?’
‘No.’ Bobby gently stroked the side of Ellie’s head with his fingertips. ‘There’s nothin’ else.’
‘My whole life’s here.’
‘It won’t be for long. I’ve lived my whole life here, too, hon. But for the sake of the family we have to get out while we’re still able.’
Ellie rolled to look at her husband. ‘Will we be okay?’
‘Of course we will.’
‘But it’s so risky,’ she said. ‘Where would we go?’
‘Anywhere,’ Bobby said, shifting closer to her. ‘Anywhere at all that we want.’
‘But you can’t just leave your job-‘
‘Honey,’ he interrupted her. ‘By the end of the year there ain’t gonna be a job to leave.’
‘The fighting’s getting worse.’
This was good. Bobby knew that now Ellie was coming up with her own reasons to get out, her own experiences of the town destroying itself. She was silent for a moment, and then, with her eyes wet and the most beautiful Bobby could ever remember them being, she asked, ‘It doesn’t exist any more, does it?’
‘No,’ Bobby answered with a broken heart. The home town that they’d both grown up in, grown up with, was dead. The memory they had of the place would always be brighter than reality. What she wanted for Jack to grow up with did still exist, just not around here.
Ellie let that sink in, she was thinking too many thoughts for it to be healthy. Bobby was pretty sure that she was going to agree. He was pretty sure nobody would be more surprised than she was.
‘Promise me we’ll be okay,’ Ellie said.
‘Don’t worry,’ Bobby said and placed a kiss on his wife’s mouth. ‘We’re gonna find a way.’