THE LAST DAY
Johnny ceremoniously tossed the black plastic bag on top of all the others. The mound sagged. Rubbish spilled from its sides like rotten sap. From behind the pile, a black cat hissed, its back arched, fur sticking up like spines.
Every morning was the same and Johnny was becoming increasingly perturbed, like there was something wrong with him only the cat could sense. He eyed it warily, walked down his front path and crossed the road to the bus stop.
The sun had been bursting from the skies before he left the house. Now a single drop of rain bounced off his newly formed bald patch, still about the size of a two pence piece. More drops followed.
Must be early, he thought, seeing none of the usual faces. Just then she appeared over the hill. She'd been taking the same bus for about six months, probably to an office job in town. Johnny guessed she was about twenty. She wore neat little suits. "The pink one again today", he noticed. A burst of sun illuminated her short, blond hair. Johnny wished he had the nerve to talk to her. He often wondered how her voice would sound; sure it would be sweet and smooth. Today could be the perfect opportunity, there was no-one around to witness any potential rebuke.
"Hi there" he beamed, "if this keeps up we'll be paddling to work." No response. Nothing. Her back was turned towards the hill in search of the impending bus. Johnny had a discreet sniff of his armpits, a bit ripe. He replayed his comments to check he hadn't blurted out "you have fantastic breasts", or something worse.
He was about to try again when he saw Jean Carmichael and Nora McDade. Jean's face was bright red.
"Maybe they'll talk to me," he thought. Jean usually says a hello.
"This running's nae gid fur a wuman ma size, Nora" she puffed, "ah'm getting' tae auld fur this."
"Awright hen?" Jean nodded to the young girl who curved her lips in a smile.
Johnny stood back and ear-wigged.
"Jeez, wid ye luk at that!" They were staring at Johnny's front garden.
"Ye'd think his mither wid come an' take care o' that."
"Aye, an' Vera says it's attracting stray cats an' the like."
So that's it, thought Johnny. Vera the Viper is spreading malicious gossip about me. Ok, the mess is a bit out of hand but she could've talked to me before unleashing that serpent tongue. Now I'm in Coventry because of a few fucking bin bags!
See if I care!
The bus started to arrive slowly over the hill.
Johnny'd been working at the DWP for about five years. His job was to deal with all customers with surnames between M and P. Every McDonald, McLaughlin, McDougall and any other 'mick' this side of the river. Budgeting loan forms, thousands of them.
At least the creative spelling could be good for a laugh,
'I ned a nu cer pit', 'Plees cud I hev a frig'.
But the job was monotonous. No actual thinking involved. All he had to do was enter data and the computer made all the decisions. His sour-face colleagues didn't help matters. He once tried to crack a joke with Pauline, his boss (or Pauline Pinochet as he liked to call her), something to do with the civil service not being so civilised, and ever since she always deliberately let doors swing shut behind her in his face. His co-worker, Gary, was probably spying for her. Johnny remembered how he used to smile in the mornings and greet everyone with a sprite, 'hello'. He got no reply, but for the odd grunt, till he just stopped doing it, and now he felt grey and sullen as the rest of them. He made a mental note to get out of there.
The crunch finally came at lunchtime in the office canteen. No sooner had he picked a table and gone to sit down than Pinochet swiped the chair from right under his arse. He went thudding down straight onto his tail bone. Half in pain, half in anger he roared,
"Right, I want an apology for that, Pauline, and I want it now!"
"Shame isn't it," said Pauline, "Poor boy"
"Yes" said her co-worker across the table.
"Listen you fat-faced, ignorant twit, apologise now or I'll report you for harassment and file a claim"
"Four weeks now, but it still makes you think"
"What the fuck are you talking about" screamed Johnny, "I've had enough of this".
Today would be his last day, he vowed. He stamped all of his loan forms as approved, without consulting the computer, then left, shouting,
"Have a nice day fuckers" at the top of his voice. As usual, no-one looked up.
The pain in his pelvis was getting stronger, 'must've been that thud' he thought. For a while now he had the feeling that something was not right, like he was living a kind of dream within a dream. It was the way people didn't notice him. Even the bus driver seemed to look straight behind Johnny when he showed him his pass. He fingered his bald patch absent-mindedly. It had grown rapidly to the size of a two pence piece in about three days and for the past month it had just stopped.
"Poor boy", he kept hearing Pinochet's voice. The bus ride home was a blur, the pain getting worse. When he got to his gate he saw Jean Carmichael and Vera the Viper standing round his pile of rubbish.
"Bloody hell, what do they want?" Johnny walked straight past them and in his front door. He loitered at his kitchen window.
"It was a shock all the same," said Vera "I mean, you don't have to be close to someone, but when you see the same face day in, day out, you get used to them being there, and so young."
"Aye, tragic enough", said Jean, "onyways, let's try an' get rid o' these".
They were moving the bags onto a skip just down the street.
"Turns oot he'd nae family. Only child. Mither deid, naebidy knows where the faither is"
"Weel, the Salvation Army are gonnae come an' pick up his furniture an' that the morra."
Johnny felt cold. Like he'd been jolted back through the room by an invisible force. The window and the street outside seemed to zoom in while the rest of his surroundings zoomed away at great speed. He felt it hit him. Hot metal collided with bone as the front of the car connected with his lower spine. In slow motion, he saw himself go hurtling through the air, come crashing into the windscreen then bounce off the bonnet, flying right over the car to land in a head-dive straight towards the concrete road. He saw the gaping faces of Jean, Nora and other regulars at the bus stop. The young girl in pink started to cry. Vera must've seen it too, twitching behind her curtains. Maybe she phoned the ambulance.
"Aye, died later from head injuries" he heard Vera say.
Johnny had to lie down. He went upstairs to his bedroom. The images came back in a thick torrent, like rushes of blood coursing through his body. He'd been running late that morning. He'd seen the bus come over the hill and started to run across. He never anticipated a car; it was usually a solid traffic flow in one direction. He just never thought to look. Every morning the same routine, he could do it on autopilot. Then one simple mistake, one simple thing and your world..... is gone.
Outside they were still moving stuff around,
"Hi Kirsty" Jean said.
Johnny looked up and saw the young blond girl from the bus stop coming up his path. She wore jeans and a bright yellow sweater.
"Ur yae here fur the cats?" said Jean, and lifted a black bag. There, nestled within some old dish towels, was the black cat and three tiny black and white kittens.
Johnny started to smile. He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes. He'd heard on one of those American psychic shows that people sometimes hang around the place they die, trying to continue their lives until they realise that they're no longer in their bodies. It can take time for someone to know they're dead, just like it can take time for those left behind to accept it. It was a phenomenon especially prone to sudden deaths, like accidents,
"Aahh, luk at they wee kittenth, urnay they beautiful?"
Kirsty had a high-pitched, nasal squeal and was unable to pronounce her s's. Johnny began to laugh. At last he'd heard her voice.
"Ma thithter'th been wantin a cat fur ages," "she'th gonnae be well chuffed."
He was laughing louder. His ribcage heaving and he couldn't stop it. He felt an insane kind of satisfaction. There were no more decisions to make; it had all been done for him. He was free, invincible even. His last day on earth.
'Sweet and smooth' he thought, and closed his eyes.