Parallel Lines (I)

/// PART I ///

Liam readied his blades. Carefully arranged as mirrored twins, separated by a few two pence coins and bound together with torn paper and Sellotape at the base. Together as one, the sudden weight of the box-cutter razors and few pence surprised him. He turned it over from hand to hand in admiration: his own makeshift horror. His heart jumped.

The kettle whistled in the distance down the hall of the flat. His mother shouted. ‘Tea’s on. And you have to be off soon.’

He tidied up his project and stuffed it away in a small wooden cigar box he kept in his desk drawer. He reconstructed strategic layers in inverted tiers of youthful transition; false impression belying his becoming. Dogeared comic books, action figures, yo-yos, and loose playing cards—worn out childhood—overtop the box along with Rizla, a cigarette packet crumpled a few too many times into jacket pockets, some lighters, escort advertisements ripped from telephone kiosk walls, aluminium foil with bits of hash stuck in crevices, and a half-empty bottle of Bushmills nicked from the neighbor’s weeks back during a bank holiday weekend party. He collected his school books into his bag and readied to go to the kitchen.

‘Don’t forget the A Level study after school. I won’t be back in ’til nine or so tonight, so get something to eat,’ Liam’s mum shouted into her purse while slowly pacing the kitchen. ‘Here, have a tenner,’ she said with an outstretched arm, still without looking up.

They headed out the door together, leaving steaming cups of tea on the counter to become a cold and bitter “welcome back home” that evening. Liam turned left down the street toward school; his mum up toward the metro.

Martha fished her mobile from her purse and checked the time while waiting on the Metrolink platform. More strikes, more construction, more delays—never an understanding ear at the corner shop when she was late. Ever since Liam had botched up the part-time receiving and stocking job she had begged the owner, Richard, for, she had been allowed less and less leeway. It had gotten to the point that she hardly cared anymore: if it wasn’t one thing, it’d of course be another. Whatever he’d done, it must’ve been quite egregious. She didn’t ask, and neither Richard nor Liam had spoken a word to the matter—she’d heard grumblings of missing items, but cared not to know anything further. She assumed his lot and the sentencing of a trial she wasn’t privy to. She had another son, Thom, three years older than Liam. Ever faithful to his phantom namesake, he’d abandoned the dreary midlands for a shared rent flat on some dismal side road in Shoreditch at seventeen before finishing secondary. So, she held onto Liam as long as she possibly could.

She took time on the tram to take in moments for herself. It wasn’t a long journey—hardly worth opening a book or magazine unless she felt restless or the need to hide behind something. That was fine with her though, the time she stole was precious to her. She looked up, around: to nowhere in particular, just out. She felt a rare openness; opening her eyes to the world was letting the world in. It was a bit baring, vulnerable even. The summer had been pleasant. With the chill of autumn setting in, she realized that. Not to say that now was undesirable or discomforting—quite the opposite, really, she thought. But, she always had had a tendency to recognize things with delay. Today, though, she was sure: it was a good day; or, at least, it would be.

This had been her normal routine to the point that she couldn’t recall it beginning. The job at the corner shop was relatively new, though. She must be nearing two years there now. The particulars tend to fall away after you’ve set in into your eyes. How the world comes to you and how you take it in. Her routine was deeper. Those brief moments she could call her own contained her settling. Which lenses she’d pick to refract the day and its colors and movement; how she’d be struck. This was almost entirely detached from her immediate realities. A subconscious undercurrent would suddenly surge to the surface and form an eddy throwing her off rhythm. Or smooth lapping waves would give her a relaxed and careful pace. And just as soon as that eddy distorted her movement forward, it could disappear and leave her in placid, almost catatonic, detachment. Her tendency was to deem the impact of yet unforeseen steps in the future and internalize them in her present, though not understanding until much later their real significance.

‘Martha?’ a voice a few heads back sounded to no reaction. ‘Martha—isn’t this you?’

Her eyes had only been there in form—she had drifted inward.

‘Hmm,’ she craned her neck, ‘Heather? Yes. Yes, thank you.’

‘It’s been ages! You must come over for dinner. Bring the boys!’

‘Oh, certainly. Of course, that’d be lovely. I’ll have to ring you soon.’

She alighted struck down. Mention of the boys dropped a stone of sullen regret into her mind’s previously calm pool.

The walk from the tram stop was short—less than half a block. After she’d checked that she had everything, she turned quickly on her heel and fixed her eyes on the storefront. Richard was outside, seemingly confused with the pavement sign. When she was early, Martha would write short quips drawing attention to something or other to be found inside and fix up the front displays. These weren’t necessarily her duties—but she’d made an expectation about her while doing so. Richard looked up, recognizing the noise of her jostling bag on her hip.

‘Late again are we?’

She replied with a forced half-smile and hurried inside, looking intently at her steps.

Commuters had already started streaming in, making a mess of the produce and ready-meals and smearing up the bakery display with fingerprints. It was a small shop. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it had a welcoming atmosphere that held onto regulars.

Richard’s son, who helped open the store in mornings before school, was at the till with the other full-time clerk, Jane. At risk of being late himself, James buttoned his jacket while trying to right his shoulder-slung bag at first sight of Martha. As he passed the threshold of the counter, he reached into the shelving below and produced a dog bowl: the ceremonial torch of his and Martha’s early morning relay. With the changing of the guards complete, James stuffed a biscuit into his mouth and yelled a muffled goodbye to Richard as the sounds of the street entered the shop.

Martha stowed her bag on the shelf beneath the counter and shook off her jacket, hanging it on a hook in the hallway leading to the back washroom. She brushed her hair from her eyes with her free hand and turned on the tap to fill the water bowl. She had brought it from home after the passing of Liam’s dog, Reddy, a year ago. Martha had bought the dog, a foxhound, after a particularly impassioned argument with her husband that found her driving around Trafford aimlessly afterward. Already worried about losing Thom in the midsts of the domestic scenes, she sought to find something to soften the rows’ impact on Liam. While idling in a carpark, she had desultorily thumbed through the Manchester Evening News—landing eventually on an advert for new puppies. When she returned home, she surprised him with one. Building off the sole line of connection he had with his dad, Liam had been quick to christen the new dog Reddy in tribute to United’s color. Upon Reddy’s death, Martha was keen to remove traces of the dog’s existence; with both Thoms having broken ties, the dog had begun to resemble an albatross more than any other creature—a specter of absent men. The least she could do was to make something new of the memory. And so she brought the dish to the shop, where every morning she filled it with water and placed it on the pavement beneath the high street display window and awning. This practice elicited a few raised eyebrows as she persisted even in the rain and blustery weather. She took no bother to it, though: if it overflowed with rain, it was filled all the same. She found no futility in the action; when set on course, things will come together as they will. Her reach could extend only so far.