Set Out Running
He’s not in bed, snugged up into Sophie’s warm back. He’s downstairs, on the sofa. Last night comes back to him in a lump. It was no ordinary row. He can still taste its bitterness.
The dog whiffles under the dining table, curled in sleep. Over the fireplace, the Little Ben clock says quarter to four. Dawn’s early light creeps through the curtains. He’s had enough: of the job, of the city. Enough of their friends, who were all her friends anyway. Enough of being a family man, in this sort of family.
He dresses from the tumble dryer. Puts a change of clothes in a shoulder bag. Finds his jacket in the hall, checks his wallet: £120 in notes, some Euros. Driving licence, EHIC, debit card. Gets into the bank app on his phone, moves one third of their savings to his personal account.
What else? Passport, middle drawer of the dresser. He crosses out Sophie as Emergency Contact, writes in his cousin in Stockport. In the same drawer, there’s a document wallet, with ‘CERTS’ in her big black capitals on the front: he takes his HND Mech Eng., RYA Yachtmaster Offshore, Level 5 Dip of Ed & Training, St Johns First Aid At Work, with CPR and Fire Marshal endorsements. Picks up his half-read book from the floor. Phone charger, notebook, pen. Toothbrush and toothpaste, from the downstairs bathroom. That’s enough stuff.
He calls AZB taxis, for a pick-up by the Spar on Manchester Road in ten minutes. Puts on well-worn boots: cherry red, steel toecaps. Writes a note:
I’ve taken £2K from Lloyds to get started. Everything else is yours.
You’ll be happier without me. Loved you once. Good luck.
Sticks it under the tea caddy, and takes a last look round, at what was his life. Feels nothing except a need to be moving.
The taxi drops him outside Hallam University at four fifty. He crosses the road and walks to the railway station, Sheffield Victoria, through curvy steel panels and sparkling fountains, feet so light he could skip. Buys tobacco, Rizlas and lighter from a newsagent, in case he takes up smoking again. Walks onto the station concourse. It’s hot and humid and busy already: students with rucksacks, business people with laptops. The departures board refreshes and a crowd rushes to Platform 8. The London train. He’s not going there.
So many places. Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff, going south. Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, going north. All too obvious. West looks better: Manchester, Liverpool. Or east. Lincoln, Hull. He’s never been to Hull. He buys a one-way ticket.
Not many people going there this morning. He has a table to himself, all the way. He talks to a ticket inspector from Rotherham who used to drive buses. Reads his book. Loves the muddy ooze of the Humber, the arc of the suspension bridge. He doesn’t look back once.
At half eight he’s out of Hull Paragon station, on a wide street called Ferensway. It’s full of small bikes and scooters delivering takeaway food. Who for? Who gets take-aways delivered at this time of day? He stops at the kerb. Cool easterly drizzle, sea salt in the air, two short fat Spidermen advertising pizzas.
He walks towards the brightest patch of sky, passes a Norwegian Church, an ice rink boarded up, another fat Spiderman. A sign on a post says Trans-Pennine Long-Distance Footpath, which sounds unlikely, here by the sea. He follows where it points, down a narrow alley between high chain-link fences, onto a deserted dockside. A board swinging loose on a gate says ‘Albert Dock’.
To his right, five big cargo boats lie alongside in a floating harbour: orange hulls, grey superstructure. No people. To the left, the biggest lock he’s ever seen, and a Portakabin. Beyond them, the Humber estuary and the North Sea. It’s peaceful here. He stops and breathes deep, thinks about what he’s done, whether he had a choice. And what he’s going to do. Plenty of choices there. Take art seriously. Go back to engineering or teaching. Write something. Join a band. Starve in a garret. Work in a factory, shop, distribution centre. Advertise pizzas. No rush though. He set out running but can take his time.
He leans on a post by the Portakabin, trying to feel the sun, smelling fish, watching gulls clean up. He wishes he still smoked, realises he can. Rolls up, sucks it down, his head instantly spinning. He flicks the half-smoked butt into the lock, making a ripple in still water. Mullet cruise over. One sucks the butt in, blows it out again. And another. It must look like food to them.
You can’t trust looks. Everyone knows that. But little Patrick, two weeks old, fit as a fiddle, with orange hair and freckles: the child doesn’t look like him at all. Never will. You can’t trust looks, but you can trust a DNA test.
A stubby bloke crops up behind him, asks for a light.
‘My pleasure,’ he says. The bloke hangs around, standing back a foot or two, like he’s waiting for something. More people come, stand in line behind the stubby one. Men with bags over their shoulders, papers in their hands.
He’s in a queue. In fact, he’s the front of a queue, and looking the part, with his bag and his boots.
A man half-way back looks at his watch. They all do. He does: it’s nine o’clock. A door opens in the Portakabin, a man looks out, beckons. Grey stubble, tanned, white shirt with black epaulettes. Beckons him, as the man at the front of the queue. He walks over. He can’t help smiling.
At ten past nine he’s out on the dock with three pieces of paper, grinning like a loon. What a nice bloke that was, Robbie Suggett. Robbie gave him the papers, three small black and white miracles. A room for a week, in the seaman’s hostel. Enrolment for a four-day course, ABS Deck Certificate. And a contract. Trainee deckhand, on the SS Tijndrum, one of those orange-hulled freighters in Albert Dock. Sailing next Friday.
He’s never been to the Baltic. AQ