TOWNS LIKE OURS
A woman delights in exposing secrets in William Hillier’s sizzling short story. Illustration by Alexandru Savescu
After the factory shut its doors, our town ticked by, in the way towns like ours do; tossed aside in favour of something new, something modern, something more suited to the times. Our rural life was a dying kind. The cogs that kept nearby villages going had long stiffened to a stop.
Big cities, office jobs, chain restaurants, shopping arcades built like basilicas – these were in vogue now. Mercy alone had allowed our town to survive this far. The first injection of life never came before May Day, when visitors appeared city-weary, eager for Mother Nature’s restorative balm.
But visitors were blindly unaware of the fact we were present all year round, whether they came or not. In shiny coats, impractical shoes, they sampled our scones, sipped our ciders, took postcard-perfect snaps of the wheat fields nearby and remarked: ‘Isn’t it charming!’ In return we offered crocodile smiles, chattered away as they wished us to and finally felt that our lives had meaning.
The day it happened, we were all taken by surprise. Of course, I joined in the horror, exchanging worried shots with my fellow townsfolk. ‘Who is it?’ hushed whispers rippled. ‘Who goes there?’
For everybody knew everybody in our backwater spot.
On the roof of the abandoned factory, a man paced, completely naked. A quiver of blubber, presented on a pedestal not quite high enough to make a god of him. The sun glared behind him in a blinding halo of light. A black diamond, the man flared violently at the edges.
Our sweetshop lady Gloria St Paul was always the first on the scene. Although her mouth gaped, today for a change, it was speechless.
The butcher and his boy stopped unloading carcasses from their van, wiped crimson hands on once-white aprons and joined the gathering crowd.
Mrs Prim and Mrs Miller from the wool shop halted their natter. Knitting needles gripped in hands, they emerged to join the skyward stare.
The postman, Mr Apple, climbed off his bike, brown bundle at his side.
Ms Taylor from the laundrette stood stiff in starched overalls.
Mrs Herman’s baby (which according to the grocer ‘hadn’t piped down since it popped out’) fell silent as the factory’s machinery.
The rest of us – a mishmash of reluctant middle-aged commuters – we too joined the heavenly gaze. We’d miss our train to the city, but seeing the spectacle unfolding, grinding routines skittered from our thoughts, pebbles on ice.
‘Oh my!’ Petals fell about the florist’s feet.
‘Oh dear!’ A grim blade hung between the barber’s bony fingers.
Between these few words, we huddled together, quietly revelling at the excitement. Yet for all the stories between us, nobody could identify who it was, this striding, cornered wolf. Was he praying? Surely not… The way his flesh wobbled was secular, not saintly.
I peered at my fellow townsfolk. Was I imagining it? I was not; like ill-fitting masks, the horror slipped from our faces. A collective consciousness, the gathering grew. With awareness of one, we understood what was happening, why nobody had called to the man, why nobody had run for the fire escape. It was so simple.
We wanted him to die.
Not, you understand, for anything as glamorous as our sins. We wanted him to die for the ditchwater dullness of our pedestrian lives.
The man had made a choice. It was an ugly, noble truth, but the thrill of his extinction would breathe life into each and every one of us
Passing people coalesced into our consciousness. Like a forming moon, we were titanic, unstoppable against our single fleshy sun. What a privilege it would be – so intimate – to witness his departure!
‘Why wait?’ The silence whispered. ‘Jump now!’
As we lived and breathed on that pale morning, the man had made a choice, and we had no right to deprive him of it. It was an ugly, noble truth, but the thrill of his extinction would breathe life into each and every one of us.
A silent crescent formed. No abandoned clothing anticipated his arrival. No people, no litter, no life. Simply a spot left clear. Nobody stepped forward to catch him, nor rushed up to help. Yet, for all our inaction, we had managed this – to create a barren space for him. The same emptiness had crept into us all, perhaps had always been there, lying in our veins, crouching in the shadows of our daily chatter (‘lovely day, isn’t it?’) while we walked the cobbled streets and filled the empty spaces.
But once his flesh and bone struck the pavement before us, everything would change. We would go home to our families – or our cats, or our spare rooms – and remark sadly how we’d seen a man throw himself from the old factory that day.
But no use being glum. What point mourning a dead man? Much better to settle down, tuck into a TV dinner, watch Family Fortunes, forget all about it.
But we wouldn’t forget.
Not for long.
The next day, the next week, perhaps a year from now, we would wake, drop off the children, walk the dog. A sudden sense of unease would strike us – not entirely unpleasant, but undeniably present. For we had seen a man perish in the most honest of ways. And how could we continue our lives after that?
The factory had kept us on a tight leash. Then, tough times. Government cuts, foreign investment. The factory was gone. And how about this – what absurdity – we had actually mourned its passing, the very thing that had kept us collared! But instead of grasping the opportunity, we’d scurried like terrified rats into the nearest offices, exchanging our boots and overalls for shirts and ties.
How could the gruesome reality of death fail to force us from the safety of the cave?
Through the searing sunlight we would stagger, blinking like newborns, an outline taking shape. Slowly we would learn what a rare gift we’d received, handed to us by a man on a ledge. A second chance at life.
We simply had to wait a moment more. When his life ended, ours could finally begin…
It was then that I spotted the woman with the blue eyeshadow.
I’d never seen the woman before. She wasn’t one of ours, although like the rest of us she had the little-world look about her. Her age was hard to place, obscured behind eyeshadow so thick it looked like she’d applied it with the palms of her hands. The woman’s £10 hack-job bob was permed and harshly set. She was a cloak of raven feathers away from being a pantomime villain.
Strange thing is, she was utterly ordinary. But in that moment, her presence blazed bright, ferocious. In any other, she would have passed with all the notice of a chill breeze.
She was a three-bedroom semi-detached, nestled in a stony suburb. A living room devoid of character and whimsy, furnished with oversized sofas. She was a wall laced in cheap damask in a ghastly attempt at grandeur. The kind of woman who tried to emulate sophistication, but for whom this meant carpets in the bathroom. A doily under the toilet roll.
You could see it in the woman’s face – her attempts at elegance were damned. Oh, and she knew it, too. Didn’t she just know it! The bitterness dripped from her hair, her blouse; it shone like fire from her peacock-feather eyes.
Then, to my horror, I could see that she had picked her way in, had discovered our truth. She comprehended that we needed the man to die, and she comprehended why. Reckless delight crept over her face; the look of someone who has just been handed great power and intends to wreak unspeakable havoc with it.
I should’ve leapt up, tackled her, sent that wretch flying to the flagstones! I should have dragged her from that crowd by the hair! If saving the others meant losing my place, what sacrifice more gallant? But it was too late. Before I could move, Eyeshadow looked up at the roof, cupped two hands around her mouth and yelled, bell-clear:
A gentle gasp swelled through the crowd. Up on the roof, our saviour’s silhouette stiffened.
Anxious eyes shifted from him to her.
‘What are you waiting for?’ the woman shouted again. ‘Just jump!’
Murmurs rose to a chatter of alarm. The shame of our awakening grabbed us by the collar and shook us to our senses
Eyeshadow’s voice sliced ragged across the crowd. The last straggling eyes fell upon her. As I had, they immediately identified the intruder in our midst.
‘Don’t listen to her!’ cried a woman from the other side of the gathering.
Murmurs rose to a chatter of alarm, the binding spell between us breaking its tenuous bonds. The shame of our awakening grabbed us by the collar and shook us to our senses: ‘There is a man on the roof, threatening to jump – stop him!’
‘Stop attention-seeking, finish it!’ Eyeshadow shouted.
‘Shut up!’ screamed a girl a few metres ahead of me, one of the schoolteachers. Long hair flying about her face, the girl whipped round to confront the woman, spitting from rabid lips: ‘Shut up! What are you saying?’
Ignoring the girl, Eyeshadow continued her tirade, emphasising each syllable, her perm trembling, furious: ‘Make up your mind! Do you want to be remembered as a failure who couldn’t even kill himself properly?’
Right then, Gloria St Paul’s speechless mouth recovered its usual gossiping shriek: ‘Don’t listen to her!’ our sweetshop owner yelled, crow-shrill. And although not the
first to utter, she was the first to direct her words unambiguously towards the man on the roof.
Others caught on fast.
‘You have so much to live for!’ cried the milkman.
Eyeshadow retorted: ‘No you don’t! Why are you even still here? Jump already! Do it now!’
But everyone was pooling their energies now, ignoring Eyeshadow’s vitriol, drowning her hatred in pools of shame-induced compassion.
‘Think of your family!’
‘Things always get better!’
‘You can untangle whatever mess you’re in!’
‘Count your blessings!’
‘There are children down here,’ pleaded one. ‘You mustn’t do this!’
Volume rose. Platitudes flew like bullets.
Betraying our true natures, a gust of wind cut through the crowd, flinging itself upon the factory wall. The man teetered, staggered to one knee. The crowd gasped, surged forward a step, supposedly to catch him if he fell. Saviour, or ruin? Moment of truth.
The man regained his balance, stood.
By now, the sun’s journey had shifted the light. Although the ledge-walker remained in shadow, we could finally see who it was: Mr Smith, the scoutmaster. A tedious man, notable only for his speech impediment and ambiguous sexuality. His unsteady face contained nothing of myself, nothing of the gathering, nothing of the fears we had sent up there to die.
It was over.
Mr Smith held himself with new rigidity. Not confidence, but a sort of awkward assertion. His nudity no longer dripped romance and nobility. It was laughable, ridiculous.
‘I’m n-n-n-not going to j-j-j-jump,’ Smith stammered, apparently the last person to realise it.
‘I’m n-n-n-not going t-t-t-to—’ making a real effort, our mediocre messiah screwed up his face, ‘—jump!’
This time, a few people feigned a gasp of relief, though it was trite, insincere and much too late.
‘And you!’ the unextinguished scoutmaster shouted at the woman, without the hint of a stutter. ‘May your life get better, you sad, lonely woman!’
The woman with blue eyeshadow expired a single, lurid laugh. An obscene end to her performance. Her voice was void of anger now. Instead, we heard something quite different in it: the unmistakable klaxon of victory.
Suddenly, somebody somewhere suggested loudly that we had better go up and help the poor man down. A fervour of agreement was followed by a burst of activity.
Presently, Mr Smith was rescued. His clothes were found in a dusty stairwell leading to the roof. The police and ambulance were called, although who alerted them, nobody could say. Since the man was no longer in any danger, I can only presume it was done to sustain the illusion we’d done the right thing.
Those who helped Smith down gave statements. The rest of us, numb, parted ways, returning to our lives, if we could call them that. For in truth, we simply submerged ourselves once more into the greyness of existence and the endless number of days that comprised it.
Departing, despondent, despairing, I saw the woman with blue eyeshadow ambling casually away amid the confusion. Passing by, her sparkling, beetle eyes locked mine, flashing triumphant derision. They glowed rich, heavy, exposing the self-satisfied sense of the destruction she had wrought so effortlessly, with so few words. She held my gaze a beat, shot a cool smile, and was gone.
Weeks later, while we were all busy polishing our door knockers, pinning on smiles in preparation for the first tourists, word got round.
Mr Smith had left town.
Nobody could say where he’d gone. I overheard someone in the post office muttering that he’d left to work on a farm. Meanwhile, the milkman’s wife was convinced she’d seen him boarding a crowded train during a day trip to London. But rumours are just that – rumours – and our town was rife with them. They sustained us.
What did eventually trickle back, and which was generally accepted as truth, was that Mr Smith eventually finished the job he’d started by taking a bath with a toaster. But by then, people took the news with little surprise, even resentment. The scoutmaster’s opportunity to rescue us all from life had been squandered in favour of a lonely, pointless death. Not to mention the destruction of a perfectly good toaster.
Some nights, I wake in a cold sweat, the woman’s dark-eyed phantasm invading my dreams. Days after nights like these are bleak ones, instilled with an uncomfortable clarity from which I cannot escape, a truth from which I can never hide – that we tasted salvation and it was taken from us.
I am not alone. In the shadow time after dark, before dawn, you’ll spot more than one lonely light on in our town, specks against the endless abyss of night. Each a restless soul disturbed by fitful dreams.
By day, we hide behind smiles and sweetshop gossip, but truth is, none of us has forgotten. We all carry the burden. Even, I daresay, Mrs Herman’s baby.
Now, as before, I walk to the station each morning, to clamber on a train that will take me to a job I wish I never had, which I will never leave. For our saviour did not die for our fears that day. He simply returned them to us, alongside the pain of having momentarily experienced the fragile optimism of hope.
If we have learned anything, it is that we are defined not by our choices, but those of others. And that day, somebody else chose to dull the invigorating rush of life in our chests, to freeze the quickening of our hearts, to dampen the thrill of feet in the cool sands of faraway lands, and to snuff out the desire to live that should have come from seeing a man fall to his death before closed and innocent eyes.
In another life, another place, perhaps we could have been happy. But there is no pretending we have agency over our lives. Not in a town like ours.
Towns Like Ours is from The Truth Issue – Issue 20. Order your copy here
To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £24 for 4 issues.