The canal tapered away from us, dappled with light in the hazy afternoon sun, relentlessly straight and level. I’d developed the habit of gazing at it, hoping the sense of distance it created could take my mind somewhere else.
‘We should see a bridge soon, then another mile and we can eat.’ Owen glanced up from the phone on his upturned palm. His satnav app was beginning to irritate me. It killed the prospect of surprise stone dead. Not that you could really hope to discover anything unexpected from such an undeviating stretch of water. He smiled at me, and I could see he thought he was being encouraging. I’d struggled with other people’s kindness quite a lot recently.
‘Bit boring along here isn’t it?’ He shifted the weight of his rucksack and looked around restlessly. Within a day and a half I’d worked out that most of the time he just threw out thoughts as if he was glad to be rid of them, not really expecting an answer. It seemed we would both like to escape the present moment, but for different reasons.
Now he stuffed his phone into the back pocket of his jeans and stooped to collect some flat pebbles from the towpath. He paused for a couple of seconds, suddenly focussed, then flicked them one-by-one with a fluid movement of his forearm and wrist, so that they skimmed lightly across the surface of the canal before dropping silently, leaving a momentary depression in the water. I noticed how quickly it grew placid again. Also that, even though twenty years had passed since we were teenagers together, there was still something of the athlete about him. When the last stone had vanished, he returned his gaze to the path and then scanned the fields on either side of the canal, but there was nothing left to take his attention except me.
‘Strange you never had children. I’d have thought you were the type.’ It hadn’t taken long for the contrast in our natures to re-emerge. Or for Owen to bring it to my attention. His mind still seemed to work like that.
‘We kept putting it off until the chance wasn’t there anymore.’ I tried not to make this sound like an accusation—there was only one person I would have been accusing. ‘You make the best decisions you can at the time.’
He nodded, frowning. ‘True enough,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow’s just guesswork. You can never really tell what’s coming your way.’ He pulled his phone out again and stared at it as if it might help.
We were only recently back in touch, and it was easy to see what hadn’t changed in him—the energy that scattered his attention, the friendliness that never quite became attunement. It was less easy to see anything new. At that moment he just seemed an older version of an old friend, with whom I should have got on, but never quite did.
Although perhaps he wasn’t as hopeful as he used to be. Afghanistan, Sarajevo, the Falls Road: any one of those would be reason enough for that. Also reason to hold onto whatever hope you could, or at least try to conceal that the whole idea of hope was leaking away through the punctures in your belief system. Now, it was as if I’d somehow become his comrade, if not in arms, at least in this aimless misguided endeavour, and he was concerning himself with my morale.
His message had come in through Facebook. ‘Is that Bambo? Can you get in touch?’
No-one had called me Bambo for years. He had driven down from St Albans so that we could spend an evening in my local, reminiscing. Straight away he’d begun to ask questions and tell me about himself, in the way old friends who’ve become distant can assume intimacy that no longer exists.
‘At the time my CO called me a prat. Said I could have blown the lot of us up. But afterwards he put me forward and I got this.’ He pulled a medal out of his pocket. The ribbon it attached to was sewn into the waistband of his jeans.
Owen was explaining that he’d crawled out onto a patch of ground that was thought to be mined, in possible range of snipers, to rescue an injured medic. That he’d just done it and not thought about it. He told me this with a mixture of pride, surprise and apology that brought back some of the scrapes we got in together as kids.
‘Why did you leave the army?’ I asked.
He looked above my head, then at my forehead, and finally met my eyes. ‘I had a bit of trouble concentrating after that. Strange, because I felt alright at the time. And I couldn’t sleep.’
I remembered that concentration had never been Owen’s strong point, so he must have been pretty bad.
‘My CO sent me to occ health, and they put me on decompression, but I was worse not having anything to do, so in the end I got discharged. I was on benefits for a couple of months while I went to a rehab centre, and then I got a job in security. What about you – married with kids?’
That’s when I told him my wife had died in January, six months ago.
‘Christ,’ he said. ‘What happened?’
I could have taken offence, but in fact his directness was refreshing. In the months after the funeral I’d learned not to mention Susan to friends and even family. They either changed the subject or looked at me in a way I preferred not to be looked at.
‘There was a lump in her breast,’ I said. ‘We both noticed it. The GP sent her straight in for tests but it had gone to secondaries. It was all over within three months.’
Owen blew out his cheeks then released the air slowly. Something in the way he did this made it plain he knew a lot about death himself.
‘Sorry mate,’ he said. ‘Seems we’ve both been up against it. Why don’t we do something together?’
So less than a month later we were walking the length of the Grand Union Canal.
‘Fresh air and movement – it’s the best thing,’ Owen had assured me.
Now I glanced sideways at him. Shaven-headed and very lean, he was the sort of guy who’d probably still be wiry and strong well into his seventies. He had the gait of someone who could always be distracted by his environment – his right foot flicked out with each step, as if at any moment it could take him off somewhere.
‘You see some incredible things. Equatorial snow – how could you imagine that? We had all the wrong gear.’
His mind flicked about too, throwing out impressions, things from our childhood, snapshots of army experience, leaving me to turn them into some sort of gestalt. For a few moments his face would be taken up with each memory, as though he could see it in front of him. For some reason this brought back how well he could draw at school, crafting tiny, exquisite cartoons in the margins while the class went on without him.
‘Do you ever miss the army?’ I asked.
‘Not really. Not now anyway. They try to make you feel like you’re part of something – your squad, your unit, your regiment. But in the end everyone’s on their own, everyone’s separate.’ He tapped his chest with his fist. ‘This is where you end and the rest of the world starts. That’s what it taught me.’
‘Not a great lesson to come away with,’ I said.
‘That’s just how it is. Once you realise that you don’t expect too much and you don’t get disappointed.’
I glanced at him again. There was no bitterness in his expression. Perhaps he was just telling me that his time in the military had lent him perspective – he’d survived it after all. Or maybe that after a few stints in a war zone one civilian experience seems not too unlike another.
The bridge he’d predicted came into view. Owen immediately looked cheerful. Once we reached it, I could see that the canal curved right and rose in a steep series of locks. The canal water, trickling through gaps where the gates met, was no longer silent, which somehow was a relief.
‘We need to cross to the other bank,’ he said. ‘We carry on past these locks then the pub will be up a little lane where the Brent forks into the canal.’
He reset his rucksack and stepped onto the gate of the first lock, not bothering to use the handrail, despite the ten foot drop into what was probably shallow water on his right. I followed him more carefully. By the time we reached the end of the gradient I was sweating and breathing heavily. Owen hadn’t seemed to notice it.
‘It should be just round here,’ he said. He turned off the towpath, and we crossed a much smaller bridge with decorative brickwork that spanned where the dregs of the river Brent became canal water. As he’d predicted, the pub stood on a corner twenty yards away. Owen inclined his head as if to acknowledge this small triumph. I was surer than ever that he thought he was taking care of me.
‘Two gentlemen of the road. What can I get you?’
The barmaid smiled at us and her eyes lingered for a moment on Owen. He’d said nothing about his love life, and it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be attractive to women. I couldn’t remember his younger self having much luck with girls. We ordered pints of shandy and a round of mixed sandwiches, then seated ourselves on a bench of dark, scuffed oak that ran the length of the wall opposite the main door. The bar was almost empty, with nineteen-eighties decor and the ghost of cigarette smoke in the carpet. Owen looked round him and released the grip he’d kept on the strap of his rucksack. He breathed out and let his shoulders drop.
‘This is what you miss,’ he said.
I could see what he meant. Our surroundings conformed pretty much exactly to the stereotype of an English pub.
‘It’s things like this you think about when you’re away. Then when you come back you see them as if they’re new. At least, you notice them instead of taking them for granted.’
‘It’s the same for me in a way,’ I said.
Owen looked at me and nodded. ‘You could say we’ve both been somewhere else, mate.’ He patted my thigh with the flat of his hand.
The sandwiches arrived along with a large Airedale terrier.
‘She wants to be your friend,’ the barmaid said. ‘I can take her behind the bar if you’d prefer.’
‘No, she’s alright.’ Owen scratched the dog behind its ears and it craned its neck and looked at him adoringly. He broke off bits of sandwich and fed it while we ate. It was a quiet, normal moment on a summer’s afternoon, and I began to feel glad that I’d agree to do this.
Then, as that thought hung almost sleepily in my mind, the door swung open and three youths entered. The atmosphere changed immediately. They said nothing, instead just looking round, making sure that we, and an elderly couple near the far window, took full notice of them. They strolled over to the bar, deliberately taking their time. Before serving them the barmaid came to our table and took the dog by the collar. She looked at us meaningfully, the lead it away through a door to our immediate left.
Just as she re-entered, one of the youths leaned over the bar and pulled some beer from a pump into his cupped palm before splashing it into his mouth. A residue ran down the front of his t-shirt.
‘Don’t do that, please,’ the barmaid said.
‘You weren’t here to serve us,’ the youth said. He had wide-set eyes and a scar on his forehead. He was raw-boned and his t-shirt hung shapelessly from his shoulders.
‘Well I am now,’ the barmaid said.
‘It’s rude to keep your customers waiting,’ the youth said. He leaned across the bar, poured more beer into his hand, and splashed it into his mouth again.
Owen stood up. I stood too, but he made a backward gesture with his palms, telling me to keep away. He went over and stood a few feet from the youth.
‘People in here drink out of glasses, friend.’ His voice was very level, if anything more quiet than usual, and there was a stillness about him I hadn’t seen before.
For a few moments the whole bar was silent. I could see the youth calculating. The other two watched him. I guessed that what he did, they would follow.
‘So do I if I get the chance.’ The youth tilted his chin towards the barmaid. ‘That silly cow put the dog before us.’
Owen took a step forward. ‘This would be a good time to go, pal,’ he said. ‘That’s not a nice way to speak.’
Owen had his back to me, so I could only see the youth’s face, but several long seconds passed while they seemed to be staring each other out. His companions stayed where they were, their eyes on the youth.
‘Fuck you,’ he said eventually. ‘Who wants to drink in this shit hole, anyway.’ He turned and made for the door, kicking over a stool as he passed it. The others slunk out after him.
Owen walked over and righted the stool.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said to the barmaid.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you were here – thanks. We don’t get many like them, thank god,’
‘Good thing,’ Owen said.
He smiled, and in that moment I could see that whatever else the army had done it hadn’t ruined him. He came over and sat down again.
‘You alright, mate?’ he said.
‘No problem, Owen,’ I said. ‘You handled that well.’ But I was aware of an unexpected sensation inside. At some point in those few electric moments fear had replaced deadness, and I realised I preferred it.
We finished our sandwiches, and when we stood to leave the barmaid brought us over some packets of crisps and a couple of bottles of juice.
‘Take these with you,’ she said. She touched Owen lightly on the shoulder, and he made a small movement of his head, not quite a bow.
‘Thanks,’ we both said.
Outside, the sunlight slanted down across the row of houses that led away from the canal, and the air was very still.
‘Six more miles and that’ll be it,’ Owen said. He was carrying our tent, and had earmarked a field where we could heat up some food and spend the night. We walked back onto the towpath, and there waiting were the three youths. The one that Owen had confronted had a knife in his hand. He held it loosely by his side, his fingers twisting the handle. He stepped forward.
‘Come on, cunt, let’s see what you’ve got,’ he said to Owen.
As in the pub, the others stayed where they were. But now I could see both were trembling. I had no idea what would be the best thing for me to do.
Owen slipped his rucksack from his shoulders and let it fall to the ground. All the default eagerness had gone from his face. Suddenly he looked profoundly tired.
For a few moments they stared at each other, and then, almost when it seemed he might not, the youth lunged at him. It was clumsy gesture in which you could see fear, like a fencing movement but without the poise or skill. Owen caught the wrist that held the knife, inverted it and with his other hand brought the youth’s arm down sharply onto his raised knee. There were two almost simultaneous cracking sounds and the knife dropped onto the grass. Owen picked it up and threw it into the canal.
‘Fuck you,’ the youth said, but he couldn’t stop tears forming. He sunk to his knees, his forearm dangling uselessly.
Owen looked at the other two, who were both visibly shaking.
‘Take him to A&E,’ he said. ‘He’ll need to get that set. Come on Bambo.’
He pulled on his rucksack and we moved past the youths towards the next lock, crossing back to the other side, where the canal flattened out again.
We walked together saying nothing for a while. I could hear disturbance in Owen’s breathing, and I realised he was avoiding catching my eye. I remembered then that at school he was always the one who broke up fights, the appeaser, the person who somehow ended up bearing the distress of others. I reached out clumsily and put my arm around his shoulders, and immediately felt his arm find its way above my rucksack to mirror the gesture. We walked for a while like that, stooping slightly, looking ahead, as the sun gradually lowered toward the calm water of the canal.
MIKE FOX’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart, Cabinet of Heed, Hypnopomp and Footnote. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, ‘The Violet Eye’, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk