MISSED OPPORTUNITIES by DF Lewis
Somehow Michael knew a good opportunity was about to arise by chance and that he would inevitably miss it. Indeed, he never recognised a bandwagon; and he reckoned the only one he’d ever board would be the one they loaded him on feet first. However, until now, he’d managed to board other sorts of vehicle disguised as bandwagons (often with invisible folk blowing posthorns from the roof), thinking here was a gravy train on track to paradise … only later to topple off the back of the decrepit lorry which the bandwagon had mysteriously become by dint of Midnight’s chiming and to be gathered up by crooks eager to palm him off as the real McCoy. Everybody, including Michael, was invariably disappointed.
Today, he wandered down his local high street after one such escapade. Not so much missed an opportunity but had become one. A mugger’s joy. Michael beaten black and blue … and red – and nobody noticed his parlous condition or, if they did, they made conscious efforts of being blinkered Samaritans eager for better lost causes round the next corner.
The next bandwagon he was due to miss was the ambulance. The paramedics took one look at his face and zoomed off with blue light slowly pulsing and horn blaring long-drawn-out hoots of derision …as if he were the patient they needed to discard in preference for different more worthwhile less onerous physical emergencies. Or, indeed, they thought Michael was the emergency itself, one they needed to escape – his appearance causing mayhem: children to scream and mild-mannered passers-by to pass out with the frightening sight of the cruel battered face he wore: stirring up panic in the streets. A victim unvictimised.
The crime-bait stood accused of the crime.
Stigmatised by the very pity that was missing.
Not suicide. But aimless wandering through the streets – laying himself open, thus leading to opportunities for criminals not to miss. The easy target. Michael. The one who tempted crime to the streets.
“Hiya, Michael,” called an onlooker whom Michael recognised as an erstwhile friend by the name of someone he had forgotten before he became a friend. Michael got confused with faces, especially those battered beyond recognition. The onlooker recognised Michael’s face, it seemed.
“Hiya, how you doing?” Michael responded in his typical drawl of post-traumatic slow motion.
“You ought to get that seen to,” the unknown friend said, pointing at the face Michael couldn’t see but felt like a painful suet pudding, as if it had been battered by the combined forces of the Mafia and other various criminal groupings that knew no Godfather let alone a God. The blood on his hands must have come from the face’s various abrasions – evidence of a clumsy attempt, when rubbing his cheeks, to cover up the tell-tale tracks of crime as well as the crows’ feet under his sagging custardy eyes.
Michael felt too old for most things. Especially for help in the shape of a passer-by’s platitudes.
“I’ll be OK,” he said.
“OK, but if that’s OK, is OK enough?”
With these words, the unknown friend disappeared into the unknown. A mist of forgetfulness and fickle futures. It was like watching an angel disappearing into the arms of God.
Another missed opportunity. Michael was determined to grab the next one whatever its shape or form. Grasp the nettle. Seize the day.
It was a young lady. Far too young for Michael to have any hopeful hankerings after. Probably about 21, give or take a decade. Michael was never one for precision, much to his cost. He was probably not as old as he felt. Age always came out in the wash: the mangle of time. Ten years older or ten years younger didn’t seem to matter – and how many opportunities during those missing ten years had he actually missed?
“Hiya, Michael,” called the young lady. She evidently knew him somewhat. Probably an assistant at a care home. Not that he needed any care. He was just another loose cannon who could fire all sorts of ammunition rather than accept his own shortcomings.
“Hiya, back, Miss,” Michael responded.
“What’s happened to your face?”
“Who did it?”
He nearly said it was not his face but someone else’s face that had quite taken offence. Fear prevented him, however, from saying anything quite so damnably eccentric. His face had given offence with its frayed edges, there was no doubt. Confusion was better than silence. Talking in itself, whatever the talking’s topic, was a comfort.
“Some footpad who wanted my wallet,” he eventually replied.
“How much was there in it?” she asked absentmindedly, as she watched a bus disappear into the distance.
“I don’t know.” Michael was genuinely puzzled by her concern regarding the contents of his wallet. Only himself to blame. He had, after all, down-played his face.
“Well, look after it better next time.”
“He didn’t get it.”
“Oh, that’s all right then. Buy me a drink to celebrate.”
She indicated a local pub. But that went without saying.
“OK,” Michael said, as they automatically headed in that direction.
The inside of the pub was a blur – contrasting with the clear-cut sunlight outside in the street. Several shapes seemed to scuttle into corners as they entered the stained-glass gloom, each shape an opportunity for conversation that had slipped the net of chance encounter. The barman stood his ground, though. A man of few words. The young lady only lingered long enough for Michael to buy her a drink. She soon wandered off to join some shadows with her own. Some lumpen conspiracy concerning crime or politics, he guessed. Drugs were defunct these days. So it couldn’t be any drug deal. Drugs had been hallucinated out of existence. Drugs against drugs.
When Michael got home, he was more or less recovered. His face was peeled like a mask when he looked at it in front of the mirror– sunburn as it were gone acidic to a thin caul, a veneer or veil of flesh scurfing off. It was soon as new. It must have been his imagination – the attack. He washed his hands in the bedroom basin without looking at them first. It seemed the appropriate thing to do.
The walls were very thin in this tenement block. He could often hear his neighbours in the next door apartment to the right asthey bickered or binged or made love. A moving population of tenants, a moto perpetuo of emotions, with Michael as the steady central source of observation. The tenants above him, meanwhile, sounded out footfalls on the ceiling – footprints of changing identity as opposed to fingerprints. The tenants on the floor below often thudded in tune to the rock-breaking chain-gangs of blockbuster heavy metal – mercifully at peace tonight or simply out.
As to those often horizontally challenged folk immediately next door to the left, he could often catch the very words they clumsily articulated. Tracing the audit trail of such conversations was like following the interacting instruments in an item of modern chamber music – and tonight was to be no exception. A new pairing of aspirant lovers had seemingly moved in on the left since Michael’s mugging escapade in the open air. Hatching a plot, no doubt, whoever they were, he assumed. He shrugged. He might as well listen – so he turned off his tap. No chance like the present for gathering potentially useful information. After all, no information could only be wasted. This may be his one chance to crack the code of Fate, to corner Destiny in its earth, to utilise the feedback from the many one-night stands and fitful marriages of lust and love that these apartments often harboured. Not missed opportunities so much as missed or missing links…
You see, the walls were so thin and he could hear every bare word as if it were spoken in his own room. As for himself, he didn’t dare cough or fidget or even finger his nostril. At night, Michael stayed rawly awake most of the time so as to ensure he didn’t snore – catching up later, as he did, on most of his sleep patterns upon the ribs of park benches during daylit hours. So, tonight, ashe silently stirred his thick pea and ham soup, he snatched an overheard conversation which evidently and astonishingly referred to someone who must have known him. They referred, you see, to a certain Michael Archer – i.e. him – being an acquaintance of an acquaintance of a said party. This party was called Avril Hart, which, in his mind, was spelt h-a-r-t, but he couldn’t be certain. He felt earwigging was as dangerous as not earwigging in these uncertain times.
“Avril Hart always liked Michael Archer…” A woman’s voice.
“No, she didn’t,” rejoined a man with gutturals so ugly Michael wondered if the man’s throat were made from tree bark.
The conversation – if the piecemeal utterances of inconsequentiality could be dignified with that word – meandered on for a while until one of the voices (Michael couldn’t tell which) came out with some words that were spoken neutrally but yet with pointed meaning, as if acknowledging the audience of one a wafer thin wall away. It was as if eavesdropping made itself obvious however silently it was conducted, eavesdropping often calling up, as it did, kinetic supernatural forces of guilt-ridden poltergeists. The words in question have faded now but Michael recalls them as being something like:
“A pity Michael had to die in such a horrible fashion.”
“A pity Michael had to die in such a horrible fashion.”
He was stunned out of a doze. He had indeed collapsed upon his counterpane, neatly self-smothered under a grubby pillow –initially gasping for breath but staying, otherwise, as quiet as a church mouse, as he regained some well-earnt hedged bets of sleep. Whether the words he thought he heard – those deadly words – were part of a dream or not, he was soon wide awake, having been startled by the sound of a key being tried in his apartment door. He held his breath yet again, listening to the lock’s tumblers stubbornly refusing to be budged into falling, despite the slow sickening turn back and forth of the key in an attempt to wheedle entry, as opposed to forcing it.
Michael felt decidedly iffy. Dead sheep had be known to feel livelier, he thought. Lack of sleep for days on end had culminatedin this sense of unreality or dream. He was being stalked by one of his erstwhile partners in lust or love. The better half of a misjudged tenement union. Indeed, having missed her own version of opportunity earlier, through bouts of misunderstanding and a mind lanced through by a foreign substance, Avril Hart had now regrouped, it seemed, since the pub, and become focussed upon her single-minded goal: to exhume the body which these four tenuous walls had boarded up while hour after interminable hour trod their precarious path into a growingly unsteady future. The cabinet of a grandfather clock often has a key in its side to wind it … or even its very clock-face a key spindle to be turned …and, in some sense, Michael’s face was being rewound, rewounded –rewakened into a reincarnation of himself, into a new Michael Archer. Or possibly unwound, unwounded…
The voices continued to drone next door, left and right. Even up and down. The beat music having finally never started up again. The words now blurred into each other due to excessive slowness of utterance. Motion stood still. Emotion crystallised into a core. A bandwagon trundled along outside in the shape of a council dustcart. There was sudden silence and Michael heard voices in the street now, followed by a slump or a thud as an item was thrown into the back of the cart. Heavy metal gates clanging as they pressed on the raw rags and bones.
Other voices, Other heels clip-clopping along the brittle pavements. A confusion of sounds that meant something to someone … somewhere. Then a clump. A shriek. Another street mugging. He felt safe in his cocoon of memory. A victim uncriminalised. Adrug hallucinated out of existence. In the distance, emergencies going in and out of focus like sirens.
“Hiya, back, Miss.”
He could never remember her name by heart.
He wasn’t sure if the voices were next door, upstairs, downstairs, in his lady’s chamber … or outside … outside of reality … or, even, in his head. Clouded issues circling its prey. He felt his chest desperate to hear a beat. No wallet there! Humph! Not someone’s missed opportunity, after all. Opportunities that cancelled each other out. The lessons of life were learned though its many missed opportunities. And perhaps death, too. An opportune mist … an angel disappearing into the arms of God.
But he had no money…